Monday, July 19, 2004

Hamilton clutches the Claret Jug-ular

Journeyman beats Els in four-hole British Open playoff

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

TROON, Scotland - Here was Todd Hamilton on this dramatic final day of the 133rd British Open Championship, an interloper among the best players in the world, and not once did he tell himself he didn't belong.

Not in the first 18 holes when he toured Troon in 2-under 69 to claim a spot in the playoff with Ernie Els at 10-under. And not in the four-hole playoff itself, when Hamilton, a 38-year-old journeyman, converted four pars to hold off Els and become the latest unlikely winner in a surprising string of them.

First-time major champs
With his victory Sunday in the British Open, Todd Hamilton became the seventh first-time major winner in the last eight majors. The other six were:
2004 Masters - Phil Mickelson
2003 PGA - Shaun Micheel
2003 British Open - Ben Curtis
2003 U.S. Open - Jim Furyk
2003 Masters - Mike Weir
2002 PGA - Rich Beem

Hail to Americans
Americans have won the last six British Opens played at Royal Troon:
Todd Hamilton (2004)
Justin Leonard (1997)
Mark Calcavecchia (1989)
Tom Watson (1982)
Tom Weiskopf (1973)
Arnold Palmer (1962)

Winners everywhere
Most worldwide wins since 2003:
10 - Ernie Els
7 - Vijay Singh
6 - Tiger Woods
6 - Todd Hamilton

Who Els(e) came up short
• Eight-time major championship winner Tiger Woods, who finished tied for ninth in the British Open, extended his winless streak in majors to nine since winning the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
• Phil Mickelson's 2004 majors record: Won Masters, second in U.S. Open and third in British Open.
• Retief Goosen, coming off consecutive victories in the U.S. Open and European Open, finished tied for seventh in the British Open.

Open playoff history
2004 - Todd Hamilton (15) def. Ernie Els (16), Royal Troon
2002 - Ernie Els (16) def. Thomas Levet (16), extra hole, Muirfield (Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington eliminated after four-hole playoff)
1999 - Paul Lawrie (15) def. Justin Leonard (18) and Jean Van de Velde (18), Carnoustie
1998 - Mark O'Meara (17) def. Brian Watts (19), Royal Birkdale
1995 - John Daly (15) def. Costantino Rocca (19), St. Andrew's
1989 - Mark Calcavecchia (13) def. Wayne Grady (16) and Greg Norman (no total), Royal Troon
1975 - Tom Watson (71) def. Jack Newton (72), Carnoustie
1970 - Jack Nicklaus (72) def. Doug Sanders (73), St. Andrew's
1963 - Bob Charles (140) def. Phil Rodgers (148), Royal Lytham
1958 - Peter Thomson (139) def. Dave Thomas (143), Royal Lytham
1949 - Bobby Locke (135) def. Harry Bradshaw (147), Royal St. George's
1933 - Denny Shute (149) def. Craig Wood (154), St. Andrew's
1921 - Jock Hutchison (150) def. Roger Wethered (159), St. Andrew's
1911 - Harry Vardon (143) def. Arnaud Massy (148), Royal St. George's
1896 - Harry Vardon (157) def. John Taylor (161), Muirfield
1889 - Willie Park, Jr. (158) def. Andrew Kirkaldy (163), Musselburgh
1883 - Willie Fernie (158) def. Robert Ferguson (159), Musselburgh
Shot of the day: Hamilton's 40-yard chip with a utility club that stopped 2 feet away for a par on the last playoff hole.
Key statistic: It was the second time Els had shot four rounds in the 60s at a British Open without winning.
--The Enquirer
All around Hamilton were experienced men, intimidating men - men who would later fly out of nearby Prestwick Airport in their own private jets. Phil Mickelson held the lead outright at one point. So did Els. And yet it was a grinder who just this year qualified to play on the PGA Tour who sat stunned with the claret jug at his side.

Another Open, another unpredictable outcome. Heading into Sunday's final round, Hamilton held a one stroke lead over Els and a two-stroke lead over Mickelson.

If someone was going to falter over the course of a tense final round, the safe bet was it would not be the player ranked second in the world (Els) or fourth (Mickelson), but the one ranked 56th. But that might have worked to Hamilton's advantage, because unlike the other two, he didn't have to contend with the burden of expectations.

"To be honest with you, and this is no lie, I felt very calm the whole day," said Hamilton, an Illinois native who claimed his first PGA Tour win earlier this season at the Honda Classic. "Sometimes I get in situations where you should be biting your fingernails off. I'm usually kind of a nervous guy. But sometimes I get out there and it almost seems fun. And I think today seemed like this was fun for me."

It was fun, of course, because Hamilton played some of the best golf of his life on a day when the stakes were highest. A 12-time winner around the world, he had never come close to contending in a major before. Yet even after bogeying the 72nd hole to fall into a playoff with Els, Hamilton managed to recover. Whereas Els had made birdies on two of the last three holes to get to 10-under par after a 68, it was Hamilton who was more composed in the playoff, hitting perhaps the defining shot of the tournament before overflowing grandstands on 18.

After taking a one-stroke lead over Els in the playoff when the 34-year-old South African bogeyed the third playoff hole, Hamilton found himself well behind Els both off the tee and with his second shot on No. 18. Needing two shots for par from 30 yards short of the hole, Hamilton, as he had often during the tournament, used his hybrid club to skip the ball onto the green. The ball rested some three-feet shy of the hole, and after Els missed his 15-footer for birdie, Hamilton clinched the championship with his par putt.

It was an unlikely turn of events, especially given the number of marquee players in contention Sunday. But if Ben Curtis had proven anything in this very event last year, it's that a player can easily emerge from obscurity to claim one of golf's most coveted prizes.

Maybe Hamilton's chances at winning were put at 250-1 by the British betting shops before the tournament. Maybe he hadn't even been playing well leading into this week. But if Hamilton was one to discount his chances, odds are he wouldn't have chased his dream as long as he did.

While playing a dozen years in Asia, winning 11 times while there, Hamilton tried eight times to earn his card at PGA Tour Qualifying School. There were times, he said, he came close to quitting. But then this December, he finally made it through, and his career was reborn.

"For me to qualify for the PGA Tour and get my tour card was like winning the Open Championship. I didn't know how I'd fare," he said. "So the last year-and-a-half has just come out of the blue. I knew I was a decent golfer. I knew I tried hard. I knew I worked hard. But sometimes I think what kept me back - two things, I put a lot of pressure on myself; and in tournaments like this, if I happened to get into them, I didn't really feel that I belonged."

For whatever the reason, this week was different. Even with the likes of Mickelson and Els chasing him, Hamilton never bowed to the pressure at Troon. He easily could have disappeared. He easily could have settled for second.

But then, he had already come this far. There was no point in stopping now.

Open scoreboard

Player, CountryPar
x-Todd Hamilton, USA10 under
Ernie Els, South Africa10 under
Phil Mickelson, USA9 under
Lee Westwood, England,6 under
Davis Love III, USA5 under
Thomas Levet, France5 under
Scott Verplank, USA4 under
Retief Goosen, South Africa4 under
Mike Weir, Canada3 under
Tiger Woods, USA3 under
x-won four-hole playoff

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