June 25, 2007

Another surprise in a year of them

Ben Curtis stuns the world and himself by winning the British Open.

The thing the British Open was supposed to determine was whether men's golf was still dead or alive again. It had been overshadowed this year by events that led to souvenir buttons saying, "I Support Hootie" and "Go, Annika," and then the one I tried to have manufactured but couldn't because it had too many words: "If You Didn't Watch the U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge the Best Tournament in Years — You Must Have Swallowed a Whole Bottle — of Furyks at Olympia Fields and Never Woke Up."

But it didn't take long in July at Sandwich for the guys to reclaim at least part of our attention, what with Tiger Woods and everybody else's ups and downs and the ultimate victory of young Ben Curtis, ranked 396th in the world and the biggest unknown since, well, Hilary Lunke. They did it on that truest of all links, near the camouflaged Spitfires and gray Messerschmidts over Dover, or maybe it's the White Cliffs. Yeah, it was as bizarre as the winner and some of the happenings.

All in all, however, nothing at Royal St. George's topped Annika Sorenstam's performance at Colonial back in May. Not for my money. Win your heart, was all she did. After all the buildup and amid intense pressure, she striped that opening tee shot right down the middle, and her first-round 71 against the guys while trapped in the clutches of 25,000 spectators was, beyond any question, the greatest round by a woman ever.

It's not overstating it to say that Annika's opening drive at Colonial on Ben Hogan's old home course was the most anticipated tee shot since Hogan himself came back in 1950, 11 months after the car crash, to tee off in the Los Angeles Open at Riviera. That's where Annika's opening tee ball belongs in any reliable history book.

Ironically, it was the same 4-wood that Annika used on the first tee in Texas that betrayed her on the 72nd hole of the Women's Open. With the trophy of another major for her practically resting on her mantel, she hit that second shot wide right into the trees and blew the deal. She was thus responsible for all the rest of the drama and suspense that followed in the playoff until Lunke, the unlikeliest major winner before Curtis and after Jack Fleck, made one more improbable putt to capture the title.

But even in failure Annika joined most all of the past greats in another category. They all give one away somewhere, as perhaps Tiger did at Sandwich. There's Sam Snead's 8 at Spring Mill, and Arnold Palmer's faltering last nine against Billy Casper at Olympic, and I could go on, but that's enough for my midyear report; there are Sandwich things to discuss.

Saturday's round, for instance. It was clearly the most exciting and unusual day at a men's major in years. And it was most welcome, seeing as how the last four majors have been won, in reverse order, by Rich Beem, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk and Ben Curtis.

Two of the most startling deeds were perpetrated by Tiger. One was his hole-out of a sand shot for an eagle at the par-5 seventh, just when he looked dead. And the other was a 30-foot breaking putt for a birdie at the par-4 ninth. "It was going 10 feet past," he said, "but the cup got in the way."

In that moment Tiger looked like a sure winner, a man fully recovered from his triple-bogey 7 on the first hole of the championship. That occurred when his tee shot got lost in the high rough. He must surely have been the first superstar to lose a ball in front of 10,000 people.

The next startling act on Saturday was provided by Sergio Garcia at the 17th, and precisely when he had become a serious contender. His drive took one of those goofy Sandwich bounces and wound up deep in the left rough, which looked more like the tall, burned grass in which Zulu warriors crept before they attacked the Royal Engineers.

Sergio thought of taking an unplayable penalty but decided to slash it out. Except the slash traveled perhaps two feet. Almost lost. But it was found, and Sergio advanced the next one within 70 yards of the green. It was from there that he holed his pitch for a miraculous par 4. If Sergio had gone on to win the claret jug, it would have been considered the greatest 4 in history.

Next came the RA, in all of its stupidity. Because of an administrative error, two players were disqualified. They were Mark Roe, a journeyman Englishman who had shot a 67 to get within two strokes of the lead, and Jesper Parnevik, the Swede who, like all Swedes, it seems, plays golf in a clown's costume. To put it simply, they had forgotten to exchange scorecards on the first tee and didn't realize it until it was too late. Therefore, they'd signed for the wrong score.

It's hard to believe the officials didn't know that Roe had shot the 67 and Jesper had taken an 81. So rules are rules, the RA said. Roe and Jesper were out. One could only wonder if rules would have been rules if this had happened to Tiger Woods. Ho, ho, ho.

There was a brief rumor that Roe and Parnevik might be reinstated. If so, this naturally begged the question of whether Roberto De Vicenzo, Porky Oliver and Jackie Pung still had a chance. But the reinstatement didn't happen. Neither did a comeback by Tiger, who has yet to come from behind to win a major. He and Garcia, Davis Love III, Vijay Singh and Thomas Bjorn thought they'd go out and settle the issue among themselves.

But funny old Destiny decided otherwise, as it occasionally does. This championship was won by a guy who was four over par over the last seven holes for his closing 69 — 283 while Bjorn was four over on the last four.

Let's replay Bjorn's nightmare, because that's what his bunker shots were at the 16th: replays. Holding a two-stroke lead, Bjorn looked as if he was playing yo-yo with the first two, splashing weakly into a knob on the green and then watching the ball roll back to his feet in the bunker each time. Ended up making a double-bogey 5 for his trouble, which may gall him as much 50 years from now as the silly penalty he took on Thursday. Bjorn was two under coming to the 17th, but he put his third into a bunker. He left his fourth in the bunker — is this starting to sound familiar? — then slammed his club into the sand with the ball still in the bunker. (Add two.) Hit his seventh onto the green and made it for 8. Think Thomas is replaying the replays?

On Sunday, Curtis had an eight-footer for par for a one-under total to give the contenders behind him something to think about. Not knowing that it was a putt to become the champion golfer for the year, he made it, of course. Isn't that how you do it when your best finish was a tie for 13th at the Western Open that qualified you for Sandwich? "Oh, my," Curtis said when hoisting the claret jug, and that's what a lot of the bigger names had to be thinking.

Incidentally, what Ben Curtis was this? Ben Curtis, the world's fastest human? Ben Curtis, the UCLA wide receiver? Ben Curtis, the wily old coach at Vanderbilt?

Nope, it was Ben Curtis, the 26-year-old PGA Tour rookie, Ohio native, playing in his first major, giving golf back to the ladies in this astonishing year.