OSTRANDER, Ohio - Ben Curtis comes from hardy, unassuming stock. It's just what you expect from a boy from rural Ohio. But who would ever imagine how this same boy would end up at the top of the golf world?
Ben Curtis was always around the game of golf. His boyhood home, 33 miles outside Columbus, Ohio, sat right beside Mill Creek Golf Club, the course built by his grandfather in 1973 on the land that had been the family farm. Ben's father was the course superintendent and Ben learned the game there. He even worked in the pro shop when he was in high school.
Today, Ben's holding one of the most famous trophies in sports - the Claret Jug. A 500-1 longshot entering the British Open, Curtis held strong down the stretch to win in his first major championship appearance. In fact, the British Open was just his 16th professional event.
"Many people are probably saying, 'Well, he doesn't really belong there,'" Curtis told the Associated Press. "But I know I do, so that's all that matters."
How in the world did all this happen to a 26-year old PGA Tour rookie from Kent, Ohio?
After life on the Hooters Tour and a brutal run through the PGA Qualifying School, Ben Curtis was finally where he wanted to be. But, admittedly, it was tough. He had confidence in his game, but playing with the best in the world was a challenge like nothing he would have ever imagine.
Curtis earned the privilege of playing professionally by making it through the "meat grinder," otherwise known as the PGA Tour Qualifying School, on his third attempt. He shot rounds of 69-70-72-69-68-75 to finish 26th among 38 qualifiers. Two years ago, he made the finals but missed earning a card. What took him by surprise in 2002 was that, in his opinion, he wasn't really in true form.
"I wasn't playing as good as the previous two years," Curtis told TravelGolf.com staff writer Jason Stahl. "I just kept a positive attitude and tried to play as well as I could and not do anything stupid."
Curtis also credits talent and luck for allowing him to sidestep a third straight return trip to the NGA Hooters Pro Golf Tour, where he had one victory and finished fifth overall in points.
There's no doubt Curtis has talent. He was heavily recruited out of high school after gaining national recognition by winning two American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) tournaments. He also won the Division II state title his junior and senior years. He eventually chose Kent State University, where he was a three-time All-American and set the single-season stroke average mark.
Things just got better from there. After winning the Ohio Amateur in 1999 and then in 2000 by a whopping 17 strokes, Curtis joined the PGA Tour's John Cook and Arnold Palmer as the tournament's only back-to-back winners. That same year, Curtis finished runner-up at the Western Amateur and won the Player's Amateur to become the number one-ranked amateur golfer in the world. It was after he failed to win the 2000 U.S. Amateur despite being the top returnee from the 1999 field that he decided to turn professional.
Curtis is the first to admit he had all the resources necessary from an early age to become a touring professional. His house was only 50 yards from the practice putting green of the family course.
"Everything was right there at my fingertips," he says. "There was everything I ever needed. And I could play almost any time."
He remembers first picking up a golf club at age 3, but says he didn't get serious about golf until high school. He knew his game stacked up well against his peers when he won a Monday qualifier to get into his first AJGA tournament, then proceeded to win the tournament and get named second-team AJGA later that summer.
Despite playing in the biggest and most prestigious amateur golf tournaments in the world, Curtis knows that he now faces a bigger challenge in taking on the world's best week-in, week-out on the PGA Tour. And everyone knows what that means: teeing it up with the awe-inspiring and intimidating Tiger Woods.
"You look up to these guys growing up," Curtis says, "but I'm not going to be intimidated. I won't be in awe of these guys. I'm just going to put the blinders on and do my own thing. It would be fun more than anything else to be paired with Tiger," Curtis adds.
A lot of Tour veterans talk about how hard it is for rookies to adjust to the rigors of Tour life, mainly the travel. Couple that with trying to make the top 125 (and thus avoid a return trip to Q-School) and that first season can provide for more stress than a buried lie in a bunker. Plus, people will most likely have high expectations for a player with such an illustrious amateur like Curtis.
He filled those expectations in a hurry.
Keeping with his laid-back and low-key strategy, Curtis doesn't plan to play every Tour event he's eligible for. Instead he'll go for 25 to 28 events and try not to "overdo it."
"The first year you want to make the top 125, but I'm not going to try to do anything to hurt my body," Curtis says.
That includes doing too much working out. It seems that most Tour players these days work out almost as much as they play golf. Fitness trailers are available at every event now, and beer bellies are as close to extinction as 250-yard drives. But Curtis doesn't see any more need to pump iron now than when he was playing the mini-tours.
"It's so hard, and it takes a lot of dedication. I'm not real serious all the time with it," Curtis says. "I go to the golf course as long as I have to then go home and do whatever."
No matter. Length has never been Curtis's strong point anyway; so strenuous workouts aimed at making him a monster driver probably would throw his game off. He says he's never been an overly long hitter and doesn't anticipate trying to win on the Tour by driving the ball far.
"My strength is my mental game and knowing my capabilities and staying with myself," Curtis says. "I try to stay low-key and not show emotion or any real highs or lows. Accuracy is more my strength - I aim at a lot of pins."
He had no trouble being accurate at Royal St. George's and even managed to sink a clutch putt for par on the 72nd hole to give him the Open lead and eventually the win.
Mentally tough, you bet.
July 20, 2003
Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner
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