When Ben Curtis won the British Open in 2003, he was the 396th ranked player in the world. That wasn’t supposed to happen. He had an idiosyncratic swing that put you on the edge of your chair as you watched it. Could it hold up under the intense pressure of coming down the home stretch in the Open? Where did this guy come from?
Well, he sort of came out of nowhere even though he was a three-time All American at Kent State and won the Ohio Amateur back to back in 1999 and 2000. He played in two PGA Tour events and a little more than a handful of Nationwide Tour events before he finished T26 at the 2002 Q-School to win his Tour Card.
That wasn’t high enough on the totem pole to get into events at the beginning of the 2003 season, he had to wait all the way to Pebble Beach at the beginning of February. He missed the cut. And the next two.
He made his first cut at Arnold Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill where he finished T42 and made $14,130. And then he made four cuts in a row “amassing a fortune” of $72,589. He missed two in a row before he made two more in a row and another $43,600.
But you’d have to say that the key to his career was his T13 at the Western Open in Chicago where he won far more than his $79,500 check. That was back in the days when the Western Open was a very big tournament and, to attract more American players who didn’t want to have to fly all the way to Great Britain to qualify, the British Open said that the top (fill in the blank) finishers not already qualified for The Open would be granted exemptions. Curtis was one of them.
And two weeks later, he was the British Open “Champion Golfer of the Year,” winning not only the $1.1 million first prize, but the inestimable first prize of a 5-year exemption on the PGA Tour. As a relatively green Tour player, that exemption would afford him the luxury of learning how to be a day-to-day, year-to-year player on the PGA Tour without having to worry about earning his card each year.
And it was a good thing because he averaged just short of $550,000 over the next two years and he would have been sent packing.
And truth be told, with that swing of his, he kind of deserved it. “How did that guy win the British Open?”
But he was out there in the ether doing the work that he needed to do…and won twice in 2006 taking home $2.3 million. Which was a good thing because his two top 10 finishes in 2007 masked another mediocre year.
I first saw him in person in 2008 at the Phoenix Open. It was so strange. The main entrance to the tournament was closer to the 10th tee, so as I made my way up and over the last mound, Curtis was on the tee. So for me, it was a chance to see how a guy could play with “that swing.” And what I saw really surprised me. Either all golf swings look better in person than on television (my experience with Tommy Gainey’s this year was an equal surprise) or Curtis had been doing some quality work to clean his up. It looked every bit the classic, Tour-quality swing that lures us all out to the courses to watch. And even though he didn’t win that year, 2008 was another huge year for him with 5 top 10’s including in the Tour Championship, a trip to the Ryder Cup and inclusion into Tiger’s yearend event at Sherwood Forest in LA.
But 2009 and 2010 were kind of flattish years again which I suppose was the impetus for this post.
Thursday is an exciting day for me. All of the early-week hoopla leading up to the start of each tournament finally comes to the crescendo of its start. And living out West, by the time I’m up and around and taking my first look at the leaderboard, the first round is well underway.
And so when I punched it up this morning and saw Ben Curtis at 4-under par through 4 holes at The Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass, my first thought was, “Where have you been?”
And then my second thought was that I knew all too well where he’s been. He’s been working away on his craft, trying to get better, trying to find the handhold for that next step up. It is a solitary pursuit, because even when you’re working with coaches and playing with friends, it all comes down to what you learn about your swing.
It’s hours of hitting balls in the heat and the cold. It’s hours of highly attentive practice rounds to see how the swing moves from the exploration on the range to the reality of getting the ball around a golf course. And then, of course, road testing it on the toughest test track in the world, the PGA Tour.
But what Curtis is doing each day is no different than what everyone out on Tour is doing each day.
So when I see an infrequent visitor to the limelight of the PGA Tour, while it can still be a surprise, my next reaction is always, “Yes, I know what you’re going through, Pilgrim. Keep up the good work.”