SOUTHPORT, England--In a week filled with visits from the ghosts of British Opens past, it's only appropriate Ben Curtis would make an appearance on the leader board Saturday afternoon.
One of the more unlikely men to win the claret jug in recent history, the 2003 champion golfer of the year looked nothing like a contender two days earlier when he went triple bogey/double bogey on the first two holes of the tournament, then made back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 6 and 7 en route to 78 on Thursday. Bouncing back to shoot a one-under 69 on Friday to make the cut by two strokes, Curtis, 31, followed it with a sublime third-round 70 amid winds of roughly 30 to 40 mph, the fiercest competitors faced all week, to become a factor in the 137th Open.
Just how good was Curtis' Saturday stroll around Royal Birkdale? Aside from equaling the day's lowest score, it allowed him to jump from a tie for 38th at the start of the round to T-15 when he finished on the 18th hole, two minutes after the final twosome of Greg Norman and K.J. Choi teed off on the first. Five hours later, when the rest of the field had finished windswept rounds, Curtis was tied for fifth, five shots back of Norman.
"I probably didn't hit it as good as I did yesterday, or in the second half of my round on Thursday," Curtis said, "but I got away with a few putts out there, and that's the hardest part of the day."
The strangest moment of Curtis' third round became the most pivotal: his eagle 2 on the par-4 third hole. After missing the fairway and finding the ball below his feet for his second shot some 165 yards from the hole, Curtis slashed at it with a 9-iron. From the moment he made contact, his face showed a look of disgust.
"I thought it was going in that front-right bunker, because when I looked up it was right of the pin basically halfway there. My caddie said the same thing; he thought it was in the right bunker as well," said Curtis, unable to see that the ball had landed on the front edge of the green and was tracking toward the hole.
"When they started clapping, I thought, well maybe it carried the bunker and it's on the right edge of the green. Than all of a sudden we walked 10 more yards and [the crowd] went crazy."
The momentum-creating eagle led to two more birdies in the next four holes, Curtis making the turn in three-under 31. He spent the rest of his round "hanging on for dear life" after making three straight bogeys starting at the 11th before finishing with five pars and a seven-over 217 total for 54 holes.
Of course, much has happened to Curtis since his victory at Royal St. Georges five years ago. The then-PGA Tour rookie has won two more tour titles--the 2006 Booz Allen Classic and the 2006 84 Lumber Classic--as he has attempted to shed the label of a "lucky" major-championship winner.
"Back then, I didn't put any pressure or goals on myself, just wanted to have fun and enjoy the tournament," Curtis said. "Obviously I had one of my best weeks I've ever played. [But] I'm a better player than I was then. I know if I get hot, I can have a chance to win any week."
Maybe even this one.
-- Ryan Herrington