Ben Curtis isn’t going to the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s this week.
Maybe next year, when the Open returns to the Old Course at St. Andrews and past champions are invited back for a pre-tournament exhibition and dinner together, Curtis might go. But for the time being, the 44-year-old winner of the Claret Jug in 2003 at lumpy Royal St. George’s is content to stay where he is.
The phone has been ringing more recently as storytellers and others reach out to Curtis to talk with him about his remarkable victory 18 years ago when he was the 396th-ranked player in the world and pulled off a legendary surprise. He remains the lowest-ranked player to win a major championship in the world rankings era.
“I guess they still remember,” Curtis says with a soft chuckle from his home in Kent, Ohio.
Curtis, who quit playing competitively in early 2017 and now operates the Ben Curtis Golf Academy, sounds happy to reminisce about what happened 18 years ago when he became the first player since Francis Ouimet in 1913 to win in his major championship debut.
It’s not as if winning the Open Championship is the only thing Curtis accomplished in his professional golf career. He won four PGA Tour events and finished tied for second in the 2008 PGA Championship, but Curtis created his own corner in the game’s storybook by winning when he did and where he did in 2003.
A year earlier, Curtis had been playing mini-tours, slipped onto the PGA Tour through qualifying school and had never finished in the top 10 of a tour event when he showed up at Royal St. George’s, having earned a spot with a T13 finish at the Western Open.
At one point in their pre-tournament practice at St. George’s, Curtis’s caddie for the week – an Englishman named Andy Sutton – asked his player a simple question.
“He asked me what my last name was,” Curtis said, and it doesn’t require FaceTime to see the smile on his face as he tells the story.
It was Sutton, the caddie, who made a simple observation that Curtis came to appreciate after the Open Championship was over.
At the end of a Sunday afternoon practice round – Curtis would take Monday off during championship week to tour London with his soon-to-be-wife Candace – the caddie pointed to the big clock near the 18th green.
Sutton told Curtis if you’re on the 18th hole at about the same time the following Sunday, it will mean he’d played very well.
“If I could take things slower it might have turned out differently. I wish I had won something else on the pro level before that. Maybe it would have helped.“
It wasn’t until after Curtis got back home the following week and saw a magazine cover with him on the 18th hole that he noticed the clock again. It was almost exactly the same time it had been when Sutton pointed it out on the pre-tournament Sunday.
Little things like that, Curtis says, have stayed with him.
Things like flying home and the pilot being from Columbus, Ohio, and making a point to tell Curtis he had been at the Open for the final round then had the honor of escorting the new champion back home.
Not unlike Jack Fleck’s U.S. Open victory in a playoff against Ben Hogan or mullet-wearing John Daly crashing the 1991 PGA Championship, Curtis exploded convention with his victory. There was nothing to suggest what happened was about to happen.
“It’s the way golf goes but I putted extremely well,” Curtis remembered. “When I drove it well and putted well, I usually won.”
In today’s world of analytics, it sounds pretty simple.
For the first three days of the Open, it was as if the championship went on around Curtis. He wasn’t among the first-round leaders but he was three shots behind 36-hole leader Davis Love III.
When Sunday dawned, Thomas Bjørn led by one ahead of Love and by two strokes ahead of a group that included Tiger Woods, Sergio García, Vijay Singh, Kenny Perry – and Curtis.
Easy to see why the attention wasn’t focused on an obscure 26-year-old guy from Ohio.
Then Curtis played the first 11 holes of the final round 6-under par to take the lead but a bumpy patch on a difficult course had Curtis chasing coming in. Bjørn had the lead but, as sometimes happens, fate intervenes.
Bjørn took three shots to escape a bunker on the par-3 16th hole leading to a double bogey. After Bjørn bogeyed the 17th hole, Curtis had the lead when he holed a 10-foot par putt on the final green. Moments later, Curtis was a major champion.
In the swirl of days and weeks that followed, Curtis was nearly overwhelmed.
“I had never been in that position,” he said. “If I could take things slower it might have turned out differently. I wish I had won something else on the pro level before that. Maybe it would have helped.
“It was hard to deal with. It took a couple of years.”
Curtis remembers walking the streets of New York City and Chicago, carrying the Claret Jug to appearances in its bulky case. It was dizzying.
Simple things became public moments.
At home several weeks after his victory, Curtis stopped at the store to pick up some milk (so much for the perks of being a major champion).
Ninety minutes later he got home – without the milk – but having talked with and signed autographs for all the people who stopped him.
“It wasn’t the golf side, it was all the other stuff,” Curtis says. “It’s the attention I didn’t have before. For a while golf was like a retreat.”
Until it wasn’t.
Curtis found himself trying to live up to his achievement, managing just three top-10 finishes in the next two PGA Tour seasons. One winter, Curtis had a long talk with Herb Page, his college coach at Kent State.
“He said, ‘Just go be Ben Curtis again. That’s what made you successful before,’ ” Curtis remembers.
“It was a relief. He said, ‘Who cares what somebody says. Just go play. Be you.’ ”
Curtis won twice in 2006 then it was six challenging years until he won the 2012 Valero Texas Open. Less than five years later, Curtis was finished with professional golf, tired of chasing something he couldn’t quite catch again.
“I probably wish I had done it a year earlier,” says Curtis, who made three starts in 2017 before giving it up. “I’m very happy.
"If you don't play well, the game is no fun. You're not making anymore. You're spending $5,000 a week and you're not getting any reward for it. The motivation went away."
With two teenage children, Curtis has found contentment being a husband, a father and a golf instructor. He works with young players, focusing on those intent on being competitive at a regional or national level. He talks about the satisfaction that comes with helping a female player position herself to play collegiately.
Priorities have changed.
But Ben Curtis’ name is etched into history on the side of the Claret Jug. He has a replica he keeps at home but when he had the original Curtis made the most of it.
He drank soda, beer, wine and even bourbon from the Claret Jug. Just to be sure the trophy was what it claimed to be, he poured a bottle of wine in, closed the top and checked it a week later.
“It was still good,” Curtis says.
Top: Ben Curtis, the 2003 Open Championship winner, is shown with the Claret Jug in 2004.