Ben Curtis first broke into the winner’s circle when he won the 2003 British Open and the five-year exemption that came with it. But he didn’t need all five years because he won two more in 2006, the Booz Allen Classic and the 84 Lumber Classic.
While those were only two-year exemptions that got him to approximately where the British Open exemption expired, that wasn’t their real value. Their real value was in proving that his Open victory was no fluke, that he could win again, not once, but twice, and that he had ascended into the pantheon of multiple winners on the PGA Tour. Guys who needed to be taken seriously because everybody knew that if they got into contention, they knew how to finish off a victory. And they knew how to get themselves into position to win…because they’d done it multiple times; no flukes here.
And that’s when the music began to fade six long years ago. Oh, he had a great 2008 with $2.6 million in winnings, but there was no victory. So that meant that he was back on a year-to-year basis to continue his exempt status: finish in the top 125 on the Money List each year or go back to Q-School. Oh, there were other esoteric exemptions that might have been possible, like past champion status or something like that. But in its simplest, easiest form to grasp, it was do-or-die every year. And then in 2011, the music stopped. The only place where he was fully exempt for 2012 was in Europe.
So he did what any red-blooded American boy would do: he went to Europe to play. You do what you have to do. And he threw his name in the ring of any PGA Tour event that had a light field. One of those was the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio. It was a light field for two reasons: (1) the quirkiness of the schedule that had it in the no-man’s land between the Masters and the Players Championship, and (2) the quirkiness of its Greg Norman-designed course that many players felt was too long and too contrived. In other words, it was too hard.
But that fell right into Ben Curtis’ wheelhouse; he needed to get in due to a lack of general interest by the exempt players and – and this is the good part – he really enjoys hard courses. He’s not terribly long, but he’s a good shotmaker and a good putter when he’s on. In fact, his Strokes Gained against the field for the week was 2.061 which put him 3rd in the field.
And the other good thing about long, tough courses is that nobody runs away with it; you don’t have to shoot a very low score. He won by two strokes over Matt Every and John Huh at 9-under par. And, affirming how great he was putting, he canned a 22′ 7″ par putt on 17 to save his victory.
I mean last couple years I felt like I was so close to playing so many good tournaments and, you know, just ended up missing the cut by one or having a bad round here or there, and just haven’t putted well.
Finally this week, you know, every part of the game together. Been hitting it pretty well all year and finally put the short game in there as well and that was the huge difference.
And I think it just – you know, all the emotions, you don’t even know you have them until you go through something like that, you just – you think you’re just staying positive and not worried about it but I think deep down you realize all the hard work you put in, that, you know, it finally paid off and that’s what my college coach used to say, all the time, “Keep working hard and good things will happen.” He’s right.
All fine and good, but while you going through all the ardent work, in the back of your mind you do wonder if it will ever happen again:
Well, I mean you always have that thought, maybe, going through your head but you try to think that that’s not the case; that, you know, if you work hard good things will happen and it’s so tough to win out here.
And one of the most important things to do during the course of a round is to remain positive, no matter what happens:
It helps for a guy that, you know, doesn’t get rattled by too much…I think the guys that stay positive all the time and don’t let a bad break here and there affect them, will do well here and I think if you look at the guys that were up in the leaderboard, they’re all those type players. They just play solid golf. They don’t let bad conditions, bad draw or a bad lie get to them.
And because of all of this accumulated wisdom through the years, he now has a new two-year lease on life, he’s the defending champion at this tournament next year, he’s in the Masters next year and he’s in the Zurich Classic in New Orleans next week:
Q. Where do you go from here?
I’m going the play New Orleans next week.
Sitting in the media room, this is a true measure of how much his life has changed. He wasn’t in the field for New Orleans next week and, as of this writing, the field list had not been updated to reflect that he now is. But it will be.
Someone else will get bumped to make room for him because for the next two years, he can play almost any PGA Tour tournament he wants to…and he can count on it.