Hamilton escapes obscurity
Monday, July 19, 2004
TROON, Scotland -- Unflappable to the very end, Todd Hamilton tapped in a par putt to win the British Open in a playoff, bending over to get the ball out of the hole as if it was just another round of golf.
Then he stopped.
And only then did the enormity of the moment -- and how he got there -- start to sink in.
Twelve years toiling in the most obscure outposts in golf. Eight tries at PGA Tour school before reaching the big leagues as a 38-year-old father of three.
Now, British Open champion.
Turning his back on the hole, he let out a whoop, raised both arms in the air and hugged his caddie.
"I hoped that something like this would happen," Hamilton said.
Tough times only hardened his resolve on the back nine of Royal Troon, where Hamilton overcame Phil Mickelson and outlasted Ernie Els in a four-hole playoff Sunday to capture the silver claret jug.
Hamilton made four pars in the playoff, the last one the toughest of them all. From 40 yards short of the hole, he used a utility club to bump the ball along the crusty grass until it stopped 2 feet from the cup.
Els had a 12-foot birdie putt in regulation to win. His last chance was a 15-foot birdie putt from the same line to keep the playoff going, but it turned away to the left.
"I had my chances," Els said after his third close call in the majors this year.
For the second year in a row, the jug went to a player no one could have imagined at the start of the week. But unlike Ben Curtis, who was ranked 396th when he won at Royal St. George's in his first major, no one will ever call Hamilton a fluke.
Not after he beat back a leaderboard loaded with majors champions.
Not after he refused to get flustered when Mickelson took the lead with eight holes to play.
And certainly not after going toe-to-toe with Els in a pressure-packed playoff.
"I've won tournaments around the world before, but nothing on a stage like this," Hamilton said.
An 11-time winner on the Japanese tour, Hamilton thought he had hit the big time when he birdied the final two holes for a one-shot victory over Davis Love III at the Honda Classic in March.
His name is now on the oldest trophy in golf alongside Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
"I knew I was a decent golfer. I knew I tried hard, I knew I worked hard," Hamilton said. "Sometimes I think what kept me back ... I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well, and a lot of times I felt that in tournaments like this, if I happened to get into them, I didn't really feel that I belonged."
Els had to make 10-footers for birdie on the 16th and 17th holes to keep his hopes alive at Royal Troon. And when Hamilton bogeyed the 18th hole in regulation, the Big Easy had a 12-foot putt for the win.
But he left it short, and his putter let him down in the playoff. He missed a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 1, and fell behind when he overshot the third extra hole, the par-3 17th, and missed a 10-footer for par.
Hamilton made sure he never caught up.
"Coming so close obviously is disappointing," Els said. "To get into the playoff from where I was, you've got to take the positive."
Els shot 68 in the final round and earned a dubious distinction. He had all four rounds in the 60s for the second time in a British Open without winning; the other time was at Royal St. George's in 1993.
Hamilton closed with a 2-under 69 to become the sixth consecutive American to win the Open at Royal Troon.
They finished at 10-under 274, one shot ahead of Mickelson.
Hamilton, who finally got his PGA Tour card in December, earned about $1.35 million and is exempt for the next five years in the three U.S. majors and the PGA Tour. He can play the British Open until he's 65.
Mickelson looked like a winner when he saved par with an 18-foot putt at No. 9 and a 15-footer at No. 10, putting him in the outright lead for the first time. But he missed a 4-foot par putt on the 13th hole, ending his streak of 49 consecutive holes without a bogey at Royal Troon.
Ultimately, it cost him a chance to win his second major.
Despite a birdie on the par-5 16th, Lefty didn't give himself a good look at birdie on the final hole and had to settle for third place. He has never finished in the top 10 at a British Open, and now has gone 1-2-3 in the majors this year.
"The guys behind me were making the birdies, and I wasn't," Mickelson said. "I was just playing for pars and thought shooting even par was going to be good enough."
Lee Westwood of England birdied two of the last three holes for a 67 to finish fourth, his best ever at the Open. Love holed a 6-iron from 192 yards on the 18th hole for eagle to shoot 67 and tie for fifth.
Woods had a chance to get within one shot of the lead, but he missed a 6-foot birdie putt on No. 7 and was never the same. He dropped three shots the rest of the way, shot 72 and tied for ninth. It was his first top 10 in a major since last year at the British Open.
Still, Woods now has gone nine majors without winning and was reduced to an afterthought for much of a breezy afternoon along the Firth of Clyde.
"I had a chance this week," Woods said. "Hopefully, next time in the PGA I will win the tournament."
The British Open didn't need Woods around to supply the drama -- especially the final two holes.
Hamilton was cool as can be coming down the stretch and looked like a sure bet to win after chipping in for birdie from 30 feet on the par-3 14th to get to 10 under. Then he holed a 12-foot birdie on the par-5 16th to keep his cushion.
Then came the wild 18th, where both players had a chance to win.
Hamilton pushed his iron off the tee and into the rough, and chopped it across the fairway next to a guard railing that restricted his swing. He chipped to 20 feet and made bogey.
Els hit his approach to within the shadow of the flag, leaving him 12 feet away from the claret jug.
"Had he made it, I still would have been very happy," Hamilton said. "If you could have told me at the start of the week, 'We'll give you second place, you don't even have to bother showing up,' I would have probably said, 'OK."'
Even in the playoff, the odds favored Els. He was No. 2 in the world with three major titles, going against a journeyman in contention for the first time in a Grand Slam event.
Els never saw it that way. He met Hamilton during his global travels and knew what he was up against.
"And I knew he wasn't going to back off."