JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — His first win came with a silver claret jug. His latest win came with a pair of cowboy boots.
Based on his reaction, it was hard to tell which meant more to Ben Curtis.
Curtis wasn’t sure what to feel after winning the British Open in 2003 as a 26-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour, a guy playing in his first major. He thought his 10-foot par putt on the last hole was for second place and enough money to keep his card. But after Thomas Bjorn took three shots from a pot bunker on the 71st hole,Curtis became the most surprising winner of the British Open since a chimney sweep named David Brown came down from the roof in 1886 and won at Musselburgh.
“More shock than anything,” Curtis said.
Sunday in San Antonio was different.
He had a three-shot lead going into the final round of the Texas Open. It was a big day for so many reasons, starting with the fact Curtis no longer had a full PGA Tour card for the first time in 10 years. He had to ask to get into tournaments, and he had already been rejected more times than he received exemptions. The Texas Open was only his fourth PGA Tour event of the year.
Curtis poured in a 20-foot par putt on the 17th when it looked like he might lose the lead, and then finished with a birdie he didn’t need for a two-shot win.
Moments later, he could barely speak.
Curtis is not one to show much emotion. There are times it looks like he doesn’t have a pulse. But when a player goes six years and 118 tournaments without a win, when his world ranking was almost as low (No. 285) as it was when he won that British Open (No. 396) as the ultimate long shot, winning means a little bit more.
“I didn’t know it was in there,” Curtis said Monday morning between flights on his way home to Ohio. “Two different things, two points in my career. At this point, you expect to win. At 26 years old, in your first major, you don’t.”
He is not the first major champion to go through tough times. David Toms went more than five years without a trophy until he won last year at Colonial. In the last 10 years, five major champions wound up losing their full PGA Tour cards at some point — Curtis, Todd Hamilton, Shaun Micheel, Mike Weir and Rich Beem.
Curtis was lucky to even have conditional status this year. He was 149th on the money list going into the final event of 2011, and then he missed the cut at Disney. He was sure to fall out of the top 150, but somehow didn’t lose his position.
“Everything fell into place,” he said. “I was thinking I would be going to Europe, to be honest. At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve been over there enough. It’s not where I want to be, but it’s still a great tour. I figured if I went over and played good, I could get back in the top 50. Or I could play a little on the Nationwide Tour and see if I could get something going.”
Curtis has a 10-year exemption in Europe from his Open Championship win. He made the cut in all three events on the Middle East swing, with a tie for 13th in Dubai. And while it might be a silly exhibition, he won a playoff to earn the last spot on Lake Nona’s team in the Tavistock Cup. There were faint signs of hope.
And he was healthy.
Curtis said he had been dealing with pain in his back and neck for the last 16 months. There was no structural damage, but he couldn’t practice after rounds, and he couldn’t prepare for tournaments the way he needed. He made a few changes in his swing with Sean Hogan to alleviate the pain.
Just five months after losing his full tour card for the first time, Curtis is ready to go back to some familiar places. He is in The Players Championship next month. He can return the exemptions he recently received to Quail Hollow and the Memorial. He’ll be back at Kapalua for the Tournament of Champions. And he’s back in the Masters, which he had missed the last two years.
“Liam is already planning the trip to Hawaii,” Curtis said of his 5-year-old son. “He was bummed we didn’t go this year.”
Even in winning, though, some things never change.
Curtis had a flight home from San Antonio on Monday morning, so he went to the hotel bar at the TPC San Antonio after his win with Irish caddie Ricky Elliott, his trainer and the trainer’s wife. They were knocking down a few beers to celebrate.
“There were about 300 people in there, all of them guests from the tournament,” Curtis said. “The four of us were at the bar, and not one person walked up to me. I don’t think anyone knew us.”
He laughed. Curtis doesn’t draw a lot of attention, and he’s not about to change his personality to get some notoriety. Besides, he’s used to being overlooked. For a guy whom some considered a one-and-done major champion, Curtis has four PGA Tour wins and played in a Ryder Cup. He nearly won another major in 2008 when he was tied for the lead at the PGA Championship with four holes to play and made two bogeys from the rough.
It’s a better record than some might have expected when they didn’t know who he was at Royal St. George’s in 2003. He qualified for every major for two years after his exemptions ran out. He never lost his full card until last year.
OK, so he’s not Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.
He’s no chimney sweep, either.