Surprise winner fitting end to wacky week at British Open

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 21, 2003

SANDWICH, England -- Ben Curtis was hitting a wedge on the practice range at Royal St. George's when the caddie he had known all of a week delivered the news.

''Ben, you're the Open champion.''

How appropriate.

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The most unpredictable links in golf. A wacky week at the game's oldest championship. And, finally, the unlikeliest of major winners: a PGA Tour rookie ranked No. 396 in the world.

Even Andrew Sutton, the looper hired last Sunday to provide some local knowledge, had never heard of his new boss.

Told Ben Curtis was looking for a caddie, Sutton asked, ''Ben who?''

With the claret judge sitting at his fingertips, golf's newest major champion acknowledged the obvious.

''I'm in great company,'' Curtis said. ''Right now, many people are probably saying, 'Well, he really doesn't belong there.' But I know I do.''

Not even Tiger Woods and an All-Star cast of challengers could sort out the humps and hollows along Sandwich Bay any better.

Curtis earned his spot in golfing lore by closing with a 2-under 69, leaving him the only player to break par at 1-under 283.

He got plenty of help from Thomas Bjorn, who took three shots to escape a pot bunker, dropped four shots on the final four holes and finished as the hard-luck runner-up with Vijay Singh.

''It is going to be a tough few days,'' Bjorn said. ''But it's only a game.''

A crazy game at that.

The Open took a zany turn right from the start when Woods, the world's most watched player, lost his opening tee shot in the rough.

It ended with a player hardly anyone knew holding the prize, his name engraved alongside the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer and Hogan.

''Obviously, Ben is a fantastic golfer,'' said Sutton, his caddie for the week. ''But what impressed me the most is how laid-back he is.

Curtis, who spent the last two years on the Hooters Tour and qualified for the British with a 13th-place finish in the Western Open, was just two strokes behind coming into the final round, but hardly anyone gave him a chance to win. Not against a lineup like this: Woods, Bjorn, Davis Love III, Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia and Kenny Perry.

But hardly anything went according to plan at this tournament:

4 Woods opened with a triple bogey when two dozen marshals and 2,000 fans couldn't figure out where his ball was hiding.

4 Bjorn was penalized two strokes Thursday for slamming his club into a bunker after failing to get out -- a no-no when the ball is still in the sand.

4 Love hit a tee shot that was going out of bounds Friday until it ricocheted off a white boundary stake only 3 inches wide.

4 Local hero Mark Roe, who would have been paired with Woods in the final round two shots behind, was disqualified Saturday for putting his score on Jesper Parnevik's card.

''When I went to bed last night, I really thought I was going to win this thing,'' Curtis said. ''You've got to have that feeling.''

He's believed to be the first player since Francis Ouimet at the 1913 U.S. Open to win a major championship in his first try.

''To be honest, I would have been happy to make it to the weekend,'' the 26-year-old Ohio native said. ''Obviously, I did that and went out there and probably played the best weekend of my life.''

For Bjorn, it ended with the worst four holes of his life.

The Dane surrendered the lead by going bogey-double bogey-bogey, then needed to chip in for birdie at No. 18 to force a playoff.

When the ball curled right of the cup, Bjorn had earned a place alongside Jean Van de Velde, Ed Sneed and Doug Sanders by frittering away a championship that was in his grasp.

''I stood at 15 with hand on the trophy,'' Bjorn said, ''and I let it go.''

Even Curtis' fiancee was sympathetic.

''I'm so happy for Ben,'' said Candace Beatty, a former college golfer. ''But I feel so bad for Thomas.''

The ghastliest hole for Bjorn was the par-3 16th. His tee shot drifted right of the pin -- the one place not to go -- caught the ridge and dropped into the bunker.

He blasted out over the lip, but the ball slid back down the slope and into the sand. Another blast, same result. Bjorn finally got it out and made double bogey.

''I just hit a couple of poor bunker shots at the wrong time,'' he said. ''It was an expensive mistake.''

Bjorn wasn't the only one who wilted.

Woods couldn't find the fairway down the stretch and let a perfect opportunity to capture his ninth major title slip away. Now, he'll get to listen to more talk about his major slump -- he's failed to win in his last five attempts.

Singh didn't make enough putts and finished with Bjorn at even-par 284. Love was doomed by a bad start and wound up tied for fourth with Woods at 285.

There have been other surprises in the majors.

Paul Lawrie won at Carnoustie four years ago when Van de Velde collapsed on the final hole; John Daly captured the '91 PGA Championship as the ninth alternate; Jack Fleck beat Hogan in a playoff in the 1955 U.S. Open at Olympic Club.

Still, this ranks among the greatest shockers of all.

Curtis' best finish of the year came two weeks ago at the Western Open, a tie for 13th that allowed him to qualify for his first major championship.

After Sunday, he'll get to play them all.

''Now when my name is up on the scoreboard, I will feel like I belong,'' Curtis said. ''I'm looking forward to it.''