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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

There’s a British Open winner coaching high school golf in Ohio

Curtis celebrating with the claret jug after his victory in the British Open at Royal St. George’s in 2003.

By Alan Blinder

All of the noise is gone now. There is no entourage, no hubbub, no fuss. Instead of yukking it up with David Letterman, as he did 20 years ago this month, Ben Curtis is spending the morning teaching southeast of Cleveland and steeling himself for the roughly 750-mile drive to South Carolina for a family vacation.

This kind of understated Friday morning is very much how Curtis likes his life two decades after he made his major tournament debut at the British Open — and won. His victory at Royal St. George’s was an international sensation: He went from being the world’s 396th-ranked player, the one who had spent part of tournament week sightseeing in London with his fiancée, to being the first golfer in 90 years to win a major title on his first try.

He never captured another. Sporadic successes followed — ties for second at a PGA Championship and a Players Championship, a spot on a Ryder Cup-winning team, a few other PGA Tour victories — but never the major-winning magic. He last played a tour event in 2017, finishing with career earnings of more than $13.7 million.

Today, he coaches his son’s golf team at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio, and teaches at a golf academy that bears his name. On Thursday, the Open will begin at Royal Liverpool. He could play in it, but he’d rather not.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Let’s start in 2003. After the first round, you were five shots off the lead. After the second, three. After the third, two. When did you start to think you could win?

A: Saturday, I remember struggling the first nine holes, and then something — I don’t know if I just calmed down, maybe thought it’s over, I don’t know — happened. I shot 3-under on that back nine, and it just boosted my confidence. When we went to bed that night, I was like, “I’m going to win this thing.” I told Candace that, and she kind of went quiet until the next day.

Q: The back nine on Sunday wasn’t as smooth as Saturday’s. Was it the course or the pressure?

A: Probably the pressure more than anything.

The first nine continued what I was doing on Saturday. In any tournament, but a major especially, it’s hard to play really consistent for 27 holes without having some kind of hiccup. In the back of my mind, I kept telling myself, “It’s tough for everybody.”

Q: Ever watched the round?

A: Twice.

Q: Twice in 20 years?

A: We were at a friend’s house, woke up and he had the Golf Channel on since it was Open week. And so we sat there and watched it a little bit, and the kids slowly came down and we watched it. And then that kind of spurred it on to, “Hey, let’s take the time since the kids were older.”

When I was playing, I never wanted to watch it because I was stubborn and wanted to concentrate on the future. Now I look at it though, and it’s like, “What were we wearing?”

Q: A few days after you won, you told the Times: “It won’t change me. It won’t change who I am.” Did it?

A: I’m sure it did. But personality-wise or things like that, I would hope not.

Q: Did it change how you approached golf?

A: I wasn’t used to the limelight, and so it was just difficult to go practice, to go find that quiet place where I could get work done. You try to schedule your day and you tried to have it down to within a few minutes, but if you’re trying to have a two- or three-hour practice session and it ends up being six and you’ve only practiced for two, it wears on you.

People are coming up and you’re getting distracted — and not in a mean way, by any stretch — but then you realize you’re putting less and less time into the practice because of that. So that’s what was difficult, or even just going out to eat, and it made me realize I never wanted to be like that — like, I would never want to be in Tiger Woods’ shoes.

I’d want to come in under the radar. I wanted to win every week, of course. Everyone does.

Q: You coach high schoolers now. What do you tell them about pressure?

A: They’re worried about breaking 80 or 90, not winning majors. But to them, that’s a big deal. I remember the first time you break 80, the first time you break 70 and how big of an accomplishment that is. So that’s their major.

I always tell them you can’t force it. It’s just going to happen. You work hard, and it’s just going to fall in there.

You can only control yourself and your emotions and try to treat every shot like it’s the first shot. And 99.9% of the rounds do not go the way you want them because usually it’s derailed within the first shot or hole.

Q: Brooks Koepka says he thinks he can win 10 majors. Did you ever let a specific number like that enter your head?

A: No, but I always dreamed of winning another one and had a couple of opportunities.

Q: Winning a major put you in the history books. Would your career have been easier if you hadn’t won so early?

A: Probably, but it wouldn’t be as cool of a story. Like, if I had won two other events and then won a major and then kind of disappeared?

Q: Is there such a thing as winning a major too early?

A: It’s not so much the winning the one too early, but maybe the way Koepka did it and winning a lot within a couple of years. Now, all of a sudden, you think you should win every week.

And the hardest thing — and I fell into that trap, too — was trying to gear up your game just for the majors. If you just do that alone, if you’re not playing good going into it, what difference does it make if you don’t have the confidence? Confidence is the biggest thing.

Q: Wyndham Clark is going to Royal Liverpool as a first-time major champion. What’s your advice for him?

A: Enjoy the moment, and don’t be afraid to say no. Try to stick to your routine. And the biggest thing is just expectations: Don’t expect to win. Just go out there and try to enjoy the moment. Just like Max said, laugh, have some fun. If you make the cut and have a chance to win, great. If not, you’re still the U.S. Open champ, and no one is ever going to take that away.

Q: You can play the Open until you’re 60. Why not play it?

A: One, I don’t want to put the work in. And, two, I’m not going to show up just to shoot a pair of 78s, 79s. It’s not fair to the other guys. You’re basically taking a spot away from a kid at a qualifier or somebody who is trying to play for the first time.

I know what it takes to play well. I can go out here and play OK. But when you play 10 times a year, it’s a totally different thing.

Q: You last played a tour event in 2017. Was it hard to walk away, or was it liberating?

A: A little bit of both. I think I could have a couple of years earlier and just kept hanging on and playing like crap, to put it frankly. Once I did, it was great.

Q: When did you recognize that you didn’t want that chaotic tour life anymore?

A: When the kids got to school age. When they were young and you could take them with you, it was great. Then they went to school and their schedule is limited, and you’re traveling and playing in these tournaments, and you’re alone.

I never played a huge amount, but when you’re used to having them out for about 20, 22 events a year and suddenly it’s only for six or seven, and now you’re out there for 20, 22 events on your own, it becomes tough. It doesn’t matter how nice the resort is. Every hotel room, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Ritz-Carlton or a Courtyard Marriott, it’s a rectangle room with a bathroom in it. And it’s tough on the family at home, too, because they want me home.

Q: A lot of retired golfers live in beachfront towns in Florida. You chose Ohio. Why?

A: If you’re in Jupiter, you’re among your peers. Up here, we’re alone. The people are great, down to earth, and we wanted that for our kids. It’s just who we are and where we’re at. This is home.

Q: What errors are you seeing that weren’t really a thing when you were learning to play?

A: Kids are more worried about their swing technique and the way it looks than how it performs. As long as you shoot a 72 on the scorecard, it doesn’t matter how you shoot 72. It’s a good score! Just worry about that.

Q: Twenty years ago, you said that if you hadn’t been playing the Open you “probably” would have been watching the tournament on TV. Will you be watching this time?

A: It’s funny: It’s been seven years since I played, but I wake up now and realize it’s almost over. You totally forget. You get up and start doing your stuff, and it’s 2 o’clock and you think you’ll see what the golf is — and then it’s over.

The first three years were like that, and I totally missed it. Now, I’ll watch it, and I enjoy it.

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