Todd Hamilton's expression rarely changes. His cheeks windburned, his eyes in a permanent squint, Hamilton speaks deliberately, as if he only wants to say something once, so he better get it right.
Whether Hamilton is at the top of the golf world -- like when he won the British Open in 2004 -- or near the bottom -- like most of the five years since -- he isn't one to betray much emotion either way. So when the 43-year-old Hamilton birdied the 18th hole on Friday to settle three shots off the lead at six under par, there's no chance you could have known without seeing the scoreboard over his left shoulder.
But here he is. A golfer who has missed seven of nine cuts, who hasn't finished inside the top 100 on the money list since his career 2004 season, is now in contention halfway through a tournament in which he's been a non-factor in five previous visits.
But experience helps. Even the bad kind. When Hamilton outlasted Ernie Els in a four-hole playoff at Royal Troon five years ago, he did it by relying on his low-ball flight, and by seizing every chance to run the ball across and through Troon's myriad humps, hollows, and swales. That type of bump-and-run golf doesn't often translate in the U.S., where the softer terrain stops balls short of their intended target. But over time Hamilton has sensed an opportunity at Augusta National, and it's at least part of the reason he's got a chance this weekend.
"It's one thing to get here and play Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; it's another thing to play in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, so on and so on," Hamilton said. "So it definitely helps if you've been here before."
To what extent, we should find out this weekend. Perhaps it's a stretch to think Hamilton can maintain this same pace -- not when he's been off the radar for so long. But that's essentially where he was at Troon in 2004, too, when he had plenty of chances to succumb to the magnitude of the moment, and never did.
I remember vividly a moment at the start of that playoff between Els and Hamilton, when the two players were walking to the tee, and an old man leaned over the ropes to ask in a Scottish burr, "Who is Todd Hamilton?"
Five years later, Hamilton has again emerged from obscurity. The question this time is if he can avoid going back.
-- Sam Weinman