History will record Todd Hamilton as a 500-1 outsider who snatched the 2004 Open Championship from Ernie Els. History is likely to lump him with Paul Lawrie and Ben Curtis as unlikely winners of the Open - but history is rarely recorded objectively. Lawrie and Curtis were worthy winners but Van de Velde and Bjorn made significant contributions to their respective successes. Nobody, not least Els, gave anything away to Todd Hamilton.
Winning the Open from in front takes more than mere talent to hit a golf ball. It takes a steely resolve that few posses and nerves of such tensile strength that is only found in Titanium alloy. Winning from the front with such figures as Els, Goosen and Michelson -- not to mention a threatening Tiger breathing down your neck, takes something else again. Todd Hamilton looked as if the sort of pressure he was under over the last 36 holes of the Open was a commonplace experience.
Such was Hamilton's composure that he made Els and Goosen, the icemen of golf, look positively twitchy. Even in the four-hole play off with Els he looked completely unperturbed. If Els is a model of self-restraint, Hamilton is the master of self-control. The 38 year-old American resisted all temptations of risk-taking. He played conservatively and patiently, waiting for the birdie opportunities and salvaging pars when a rare error was made. This is the stuff of which champions are made.
The Open always generates drama and no year passes without some happening that saturates golf discussion in golf club bars for the ensuing year. Arguments are still raging about Parnevick and Roe and what transpired in the scorer's hut at St George's. How many juries have sat deliberating the question of Van de Velde's sanity? Royal Troon provided its own brand of drama at close of play on Saturday with a leaderboard that was mouth-watering in anticipation.
Troon was presented and set up perfectly for a great championship and the leaderboard on Saturday night reflected it. They were all there; Els, Goosen, Mickelson and Woods - all Major champions, all in an aggressive frame of mind and all capable of making a Sunday challenge. Thomas Levet was also there, fresh from his win the week before in the Scottish Open. Barry Lane was there too, a seasoned campaigner and a born again winner. Scott Verplank, Mike Weir and Skip Kendal were all within striking distance. And then there was Colin Montgomerie with his heart on his sleeve and the crowd in his pocket, dripping emotion all over his adopted home links. Sunday was destined to be memorable although few expected that Todd Hamilton would make it so.
They all produced sterling golf and they all contributed to the drama that unfolded. Montgomerie failed to threaten and the challenge of Kendal, Verplank and Weir never materialised. Goosen never really got started - playing with Mickelson, he was possibly dazzled by the inane smile that has become Mickelson's permanent expression since his adventure in Georgia in May. Mickelson certainly threatened and, indeed, seemed the likely winner through the front nine holes on Sunday before he too dribbled away chances on the greens.
It was Els who looked the likely champion after Mickelson's fall. Levet persisted in making pars from unlikely places. This powerful Frenchman clearly enjoys links golf and produced the variety of shots required to master Troon, as he did two years ago to master Muirfield. Barry Lane, too, continued to make the putts but Troon's 'Amen Corner' the 9th, 10th and 11th holes, took toll and they fell inexorably, like autumn leaves.
Only Els and Hamilton in the last game continued to find the birdies. The none-too-sagacious, like myself, awaited Hamilton's demise against Els' relentless play. We waited and we waited as the holes went by and the stoic American held his two-stroke lead. Els' birdie at the 16th was surely the signal: Hamilton was bound to bogey the long par three 17th and Els would take the honours at the 18th. But Hamilton fired the better arrow-straight shot at the 17th green and carried his shot lead to the 18th tee.
Hamilton was unlucky at the 18th. His ball found rough on the right from the tee, from which he could only hack it out to the crowd barrier on the left - still 30 yards from the green, with bunkers to carry to the hole. Els, meanwhile, had found himself with a birdiable putt below the flag. Hamilton made bogey but Els' putt was a woeful attempt for the championship.
You could have got good odds for Els having the better aggregate over the four extra holes. You could even have got good odds, when Hamilton was a shot to the good, after his tee shot at the last hole barely made the fairway. His second shot was still some way short of the green while Els, again, comfortably put his ball 12 feet below the flag. Hamilton chipped his ball secure for par, leaving Els with a putt to take them back down the 18th. Els failed to make his putt and the rest is history.
Todd Hamilton has learned his trade the hard way. He won 11 events in Japan before he secured his place on the US Tour this year, when he posted his intentions by winning the Honda Classic. On Saturday night, Lee Westwood and others gave warning that Hamilton had the game and the nerve to take the title from in front. Few were prepared to listen. They are listening now.
Todd Hamilton is a big guy, a big hitter with a big game, but he won this Open with brain rather than brawn. His play should be an object lesson for the young guns like Casey, Donald and Scott, for he is a guy with guile.
Todd Hamilton is the very worthy Champion Golfer of the Year, the title he holds with his name on the Claret Jug, the Open Championship Trophy.
|| 19 - JULY 2004