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Dining declaration makes Curtis upset even harder to swallow

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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SANDWICH, England -- For those who believed his 2003 British Open victory was outrageous, audacious and utterly out of character for a quiet, unheralded sort such as Ben Curtis, you should have heard what he said the night before.

Out for a meal the evening before the final round at Royal St. George's, the low-key Ohioan looked across the table and told his future wife, Candace, that he was going to win the Claret Jug the following afternoon. Apparently, she wasn't quite sure how to react.

Eight years later, the same holds true for the rest of us. For Curtis, who usually speaks in a pleasant monotone and a notch above a whisper, it was akin to yodeling in a foreign tongue.

"She asked how I felt about Sunday, about my chances," Curtis recalled. "I told her I was going to win, and she got real quiet. Didn't talk to me until Sunday when we got finished."

Out to dinner? The guy was out to lunch.

A few hours later, playing in the fourth-to-last group off the course, Curtis authored one of the biggest upsets in the history of the game, if not all of sports, becoming the first player in 90 years to win while making his first start at a Grand Slam event.

A day after his bold statement over dinner, Ben Curtis celebrates winning the 2003 British Open with fiancee Candace. (Getty Images)  
A day after his bold statement over dinner, Ben Curtis celebrates winning the 2003 British Open with fiancee Candace. (Getty Images)  
"It was a big upset, but it happens," said ESPN analyst Curtis Strange, who was on hand as the improbable scenario played out. "It happens."

Actually, it doesn't.

The seemingly fictional back story of the Curtis victory made it the most implausible upset of the modern era, at minimum. Sure, less-heralded players have waved a magic wand over major championships in the past to dethrone fair-haired favorites. In two of the biggest Richter rattlers, Iowa's largely unknown Jack Fleck beat Ben Hogan in a playoff at the 1955 U.S. Open and caddie Francis Ouimet put the American game on the map by beating the Brits at the 1913 National Open.

But in the Baby Boom era of televised sports, the Curtis caper stands as the biggest heist of championship chrome ever. To this day, the magnitude hasn't completely registered for Curtis, now 34 and the father of two young children.

"It hasn't fully sunk in because I haven't stopped playing," Curtis said. "Once I am done, I think maybe that's when it will happen, when I have time to sit back and reflect on it.

"It always seems like you are worried about what you are doing the next week, the next month, and you are always looking ahead instead of looking back."

Through whatever lens, it's hard to dispute the shock value of Curtis' completely unforeseen triumph, and the years that have passed have only framed the achievement in even more unlikely terms.

Let's add some more Claret Jug clarity, if you will.

Curtis was a top-tier college player at Kent State, but was months removed from the Hooters Tour after earning his PGA Tour card at Q-school in late 2002. Not only had he never before played in a major, he had never mustered a professional top-10 finish in his half-season in the big leagues.

He had never before played links golf and had qualified 10 days earlier by virtue of a last-ditch bid earned by finishing T13 at the Western Open at Cog Hill outside Chicago. When he won at St. George's, this week's venue, he jumped from No. 396 in the world to 35th, the biggest one-week improvement in the annals of the ranking system. A matter of hours later, he was hitting golf shots with David Letterman in New York City.

Calling him an unknown would be insulting the anonymous.

On the website of the transcription service used by several professional events worldwide, Curtis' first quote sheet as a professional is from July 20, 2003, the day he won the game's oldest major. In other words, he had never before set foot in a media center. Good thing Curtis is hardly the excitable type, or he would still have been in shock when they hauled him before the world press, who had little clue who he was.

His first words were, verbatim: "Oh, man. That's about all I can say now."

That about covered it. It wasn't just that Curtis won as a major-championship maiden, it was a matter of who he passed along the way. No question, time has only made the achievement grow greater.

After starting the day tied for third and two shots back, Curtis held off world No. 1 Tiger Woods, who finished two strokes back and was two years removed from completing his wraparound Grand Slam. Finishing one shot behind, along with European Tour star Thomas Bjorn, was Hall of Famer Vijay Singh, who won nine times the following season and ultimately climbed to world No. 1. Davis Love, who won a major title among his 20 PGA Tour victories and probably is headed to the Hall someday, too, finished T4.

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"You weren't expecting Ben to win out of the blue like that, but he's proven he's a good, solid player and plays good in tough conditions and hangs in there," Love said. "That's what you have to do in a major."

Perhaps most incredible of all, the maddening nuances of links golf usually take several years for the most talented American players to solve. Just ask Tom Watson, or Phil Mickelson, who still hasn't remotely figured it out. Curtis had played a couple of practice rounds before the tournament began and that was the extent of his links background.

"I think it's even more of an upset when you combine that with playing it on links golf, which at his age, he had not played," Strange said.

Curtis birdied six of the first 11 holes to assume the lead. But for the final two hours, he looked every bit the part of a majors rookie. He bogeyed Nos. 12, 14, 15 and 17 to fall behind Bjorn, who was on the 17th when Curtis made a testy putt for par on the 18th and signed his card.

Seeking to give him some space, officials escorted Curtis to the driving range.

"With about 50 TV people," he said.

His caddie, Andy Sutton, watched from a nearby trailer.

"I couldn't watch," Curtis said. "I didn't want to sit there and watch him [Bjorn] do something great, you know? [Sutton] was giving me updates, 'Uh, Vijay missed. Now only one more.'"

Bjorn had no answer on the 18th and the title was handed to Curtis, who was warmly received by the crowd, despite the fact that few could have picked him out of a lineup of six guys named Ben Curtis.

"I guess it's a fairy tale in a sense," Curtis said. "To be part of it is something unique. I'll never forget what happened, that's for sure."

Which brings us back to the uncharacteristically bold statement to his wife on the eve of the greatest day of his pro career. On only one other occasion has Curtis felt like he was certain to win, and in that instance, the details were comically tilted in his favor.

When he won the now-defunct and rain-plagued Booz Allen title in 2006, he held a six-shot lead and had one hole left to complete when play was suspended and he came back the next morning to finish off the tournament.

"I felt like I could handle it," Curtis said, his trademark smirk crossing his face.

Getting a handle on the magnitude of what he accomplished at Royal St. George's remains just a tad tougher.

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