CONSIDER THIS: Todd Hamilton: current world ranking 1585th. David Duval: world ranking 1222nd. And the list goes on – Ben Curtis: 514th. Darren Clarke: 458th. Paul Lawrie: 409th.
How the mighty have fallen. All these players have won The Open Championship in the not-too-distant past – Lawrie in 1999, Duval in 2001, Curtis in 2003, Hamilton in 2004 and Clarke in 2011. Age-wise, they are all far from over the hill. Yet their golf games have plummeted and those victories in the world’s oldest and most celebrated Major, signified in each case their only success at the highest level.
Why this should be so is debatable. Yes, there is a certain amount of luck involved while playing a British Open on a links where the weather and the bounce of the ball on firm fairways can play a big part in a man’s score.
And in the case of Duval, for instance, the decline was possibly due to his social anxiety and not wanting to be in the limelight – those Oakley sun shades protected sensitive eyes but also kept the world at bay. At the height of his powers, hitting laser-like irons and ranked No 1 in the world, it was Duval versus Tiger. Then, rapidly, it became Duval versus himself. The American, who also places family above golf which is why in addition to his own two children he has adopted three more, more than once attempted a comeback.
But he has finally, and thankfully, accepted the inevitable and this year announced he was through with competitive golf and joined the Golf Channel as an analyst.
Ben Curtis has had a decent career. He has won four times on the PGA Tour including the 2003 Open at Royal St. George’s. He has made over 124 cuts and amassed over $11- million in career earnings.
He turned professional in 2000 and played the minor Hooters Tour for a couple of years without too much success. Curtis then earned his 2003 PGA Tour Card by finishing T-26 at the 2002 PGA Q-School, and this is when his fairy tale begins.
In his first 12 events of his rookie season in 2003, he missed five cuts and did not finish higher than T-27. His 13th event as a professional was the Western Open where he picked up a T-13, which qualified him to play in the 2003 Open to be held the very next week. And he then held off an impressive list of contenders, namely Davis Love, Thomas Bjorn, Vijay Singh, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods to collect the Claret Jug, becoming the first golfer since Francis Ouimet in the 1913 US Open to win in his first Major appearance.
He was dubbed the ‘Most Unlikely American to win The Open’
Today he is known as a player who regards golf as just a job and he won’t let travel and family get in the way. When he works at it and applies himself, he is pretty good at it. But it’s not everything to him, which is probably why he ranks 514th in the world.
If that wasn’t enough for the golf world, the very next year Todd Hamilton became the second ‘Most Unlikely American to win The Open” when he defeated the mighty Ernie Els in a four-hole play-off for the title at Royal Troon.
Hamilton hailed from a tiny place in Illinois called Oquawka where the most famous ‘name’ in town was Norma Jean, a circus elephant who was in transit to another part of Illinois but died in Oquawka before they could move her to where she was supposed to go. She was therefore buried in the town square and became the town’s most talked about ‘resident’ before Hamilton took over that honour.
Hamilton tried and failed eight times over 17 years to win his playing privileges on the US PGA Tour, and so finally took his game to the Asian Tour.
There he was also an underachiever until two Americans backed him for one last year, 1992, and he won the Asian Order of Merit.
That got him exempt on the Japanese tour. There he won 11 times. So he definitely did have plenty of game and perhaps his Open victory wasn’t that much of a surprise.
“Sometimes I get in situations where you should be biting all your fingernails off,” he said at the time. “But sometimes I get out there and it almost seems fun and it felt like that here against Ernie in the play-off.”
Finally, Australia’s Ian Baker-Finch was another Open champion to go from golfing hero to zero. He captured the 1991 Championship at Royal Birkdale but four years later – at St Andrews in 1995 and drawn with Arnold Palmer – his game and his mind were in such disarray that he hooked his drive 100 yards left and out-of-bounds at the first hole which has a fairway wide enough to land a Boeing.
In 1995 and 1996 Baker-Finch missed 32 cuts in a row and in the 1997 Open at Royal Troon shot 92 in the first round. Today, though, he is an analyst with CBS Sports on the PGA Tour.
“I’ve been given a mulligan,” he says. “I stopped being able to play well. That life’s gone, but a new one has start in the commentator’s box.”