As the 149th Open Championship rumbles towards its Sunday conclusion, Ben Curtis will be staging a charity brunch in a quiet corner of Ohio. Sixty guests will learn what it is like to win a Royal St George’s Open from the man who did that in 2003. Yet it seems a harsh reality that Curtis could walk outside the ropes in Kent this week without the majority of fellow gallery members knowing who he was. The American, who is 44, stopped playing competitively in 2017.
“I’m at peace with it,” he says. “I still watch occasionally. There were multiple things but I was just tired of being away from family. When they are young they can travel, but that becomes very difficult as they get into school.
“It helps the decision when you are playing badly. You can get away with it all a little more when you are playing well. I remember talking to Charles Howell, who was going through the same feelings as I was but he kept playing well. Everybody goes through it to some degree. Playing 15 years on Tour and so much travel just wore me down.”
The Curtis triumph of 18 years ago was extraordinary on umpteen levels. He was a 500-1 outsider who had never encountered a British or Irish links. Curtis had not tasted victory on a main professional tour. Thomas Bjørn, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Davis Love and Nick Faldo were among those who could not match Curtis’s one-under-par aggregate.
Letters of praise from Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer followed. “It’s cool when you have these guys writing to you,” Curtis says. “I was going back to the airport with Tiger’s agent. He was on the phone to Tiger. He said: ‘Tiger would like to speak to you.’ So he congratulated me during a conversation. These things are really special memories.”
So how did Curtis do it? “I don’t know, other than having extreme confidence,” he says. “The four events I played prior to that, I had made the cut and gotten better every week. I had the right attitude and mentality, it was like: ‘I want to come here and have fun. I may never come back here again.’
“I was so relaxed. Every time I won was similar in that sense, nothing bothered me. When you are not playing your best, you just want everything to go right. You go out for dinner and the food takes an extra 15-20 minutes, then you let that bother you which bleeds into other stuff.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, which stage you are at; when you are 150 yards away, it is a 150-yard shot. No matter where you are in the world.”
This rather underplays the scale of Curtis’s achievement. “I had never seen that kind of course before, it was new so it was like being a kid again. Here, you miss a green and just grab your wedge. There, you had so many options. I loved that. It brought me back to being a little boy messing around, chipping with a six-iron.”
Curtis sat two from the lead after 54 holes. He told his fiancee, Candace, on the Saturday evening that he was going to win. “She looked at me kinda funny” he says.
“Was I nervous on the 1st tee? Of course, but I was extremely focused. I was more nervous on that tee on Thursday because by Sunday you are playing well, you are in the competition. On Thursday morning, I watched on TV as Tiger loses his ball on the 1st and the bad images fill your head. By Sunday, I could tell myself that if I hit that fairway I was going to win. Once I did that, it really relaxed me.
“I played extremely well on the back nine on Saturday. That was a turning point. I struggled a bit on the front side, which was more gettable. I got it under par on the day on the back nine and my confidence came flooding back. I knew doing that on the back nine, there was a chance I could do it.”
Curtis is self-effacing and charming. When he shrugs off the wider perception he was a shock – or even unsatisfactory – major winner, there is no act. “It’s fine, people can take it how they want,” he says. “I know in my heart that only 300-odd people have ever won a major, against the number that have played for a living. Anybody can tell me I’m a nobody but I’m one of that group of 300 people.
“I can see where it [public attitudes] could affect people but I was always brought up to be myself. I was never going to try to be someone that I was not.”
Curtis won another three events on the PGA Tour and played for the US in the 2008 Ryder Cup. Nowadays, he is immersed in his coaching academy that prioritises career choices for aspiring players just as much as technical points. “I still love golf and nothing better is trying to help young kids pursue what I wanted to pursue when I was their age. It’s great to see people progress and it brings back memories. It’s rewarding, for sure.
“You only live once so you have to be happy. I did a lot in golf. If you had told me at 15 years old I was going to win an Open Championship and three other events, that I would play in a Ryder Cup, I would have signed up for that in a heartbeat. I would have signed up for one victory.”
Curtis will not completely rule out an Open return one day – as a past champion, he remains eligible until the age of 60 – but a flight to the UK is not on the schedule. “All my friends keep hounding me about that. I’d probably need a new caddie for every shot because of the number of offers I have had. For now, there is no plan but things can change because, five years before I stopped playing golf, I would have said you were crazy if you told me I wouldn’t compete any more.
“If I’m going to go, it wouldn’t be for two days and to wave to the five people who follow me. If I’m going back, I need to feel I have a chance to be competitive and make the cut. I also don’t want to take a spot away from somebody who is trying to earn a living. If I do it, I need to feel ready to compete.”
Royal St George’s in 2003 showed Curtis what can be achieved with even the most modest of aspirations.