TROON, Scotland --Two days before the British Open, the
defending champion sat almost unnoticed at a dinner that included
Prince Andrew and Scotland's favorite son, Colin Montgomerie.
Ben Curtis wasn't complaining. His name was already on the
claret jug, and his mind was on defending the title he won during
an improbable rookie year on the PGA Tour.
People still might not be quite sure who he is, but the
recognition can wait for another day.
"You don't get to defend your title too much, especially in a
major," Curtis said. "I'm hopefully going to go out there and not
really worry about what's at stake, just go out and play golf and
have some fun."
The 133rd British Open began Thursday morning in mostly sunny
conditions with only a trace of breeze coming off the Firth of
Clyde, and it didn't take long to stir up the Scottish crowds.
Gary Evans of England, best known for losing a ball on the 17th
at Muirfield to wreck his Open chances, made a double eagle on the
par-5 fourth by holing a 5-iron from the fairway. It was the first
double eagle in the British Open since Greg Owen on the 11th hole
at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2001.
On the other end of the spectrum was Tom Weiskopf, the '73 Open
champion at Royal Troon playing in his first major since the 1995
British Open. The 61-year-old Weiskopf took a quadruple-bogey 8 on
the easy opening hole.
David Duval didn't even make it to the first tee, withdrawing
because of a sprained muscle in his back. Duval played his first
tournament of the year last month in the U.S. Open, shooting 83-82
to miss the cut.
Curtis was among the late starters. He will be introduced as the
defending champion, and get a nice round of applause. That's better
than the title he had last year, which was rookie PGA Tour member
and first-time major player.
Curtis was then a 500-1 shot just trying to figure out how to
play links golf, so unknown that when he asked for a local caddie,
the caddie replied: "Ben who?"
His visibility hasn't improved much since last year, and neither
have his odds. British bookies make him a 200-1 pick to
successfully defend his title, something that hasn't happened since
Tom Watson turned the trick in 1983.
Still, Curtis likes his chances even though he's done little to
impress anyone since he held the silver claret jug aloft on the
18th green last year at Royal St. George's.
"I think you've got to look at it, anybody who defends their
title is a threat," he said. "Especially in a major because I've
won this before and I feel like I can do it again."
While all eyes won't be on the understated Ohioan, they will be
on Tiger Woods as he tries to snap out of a slump that would have
been unthinkable only a few years ago.
Woods has failed to win any of the last eight major
championships, after winning seven of the previous 11. He comes to
Troon with a big new graphite-shafted driver and lowered
expectations, mired in a slump so bad he's winless in stroke play
events since last October.
"You go out and try your best," Woods said. "That's all you
can do. You can't do anything more than that."
The Open is back at Royal Troon for the first time since 1997,
when Justin Leonard won his only major championship. The links
course on the Irish Sea plays relatively easy on the outward front
nine, but can be brutal with the wind blowing in a player's face on
the inward nine.
Colin Montgomerie knows it better than anyone, having played the
championship course hundreds of times while honing his game as a
teenager. At the age of 41, he's back trying desperately to win his
first major title before fellow Scots who will be cheering his
Montgomerie is going through a divorce from his wife of 14 years
made even more painful by the attention British tabloids pay to it.
His game has been so lousy he had to win a qualifying playoff just
to get in the tournament, and even the home folks would have to
stretch to consider him a favorite.
"I thought back in June that I wasn't going to be playing at
all, so it's a delight to be here in the first place," Montgomerie
said. "And I will do my utmost to do as well as I can."
Montgomerie's last stand isn't the only subplot amid the rolling
fairways and thick heather of Royal Troon.
Phil Mickelson will try to shake off the effects of his
three-putt from 5 feet on the 71st hole that cost him a chance to
win the U.S. Open, while Retief Goosen will try and prove he can
win other majors than the U.S. Open he has won twice.
Then there's Ernie Els, who can surpass Woods and become the No.
1 player in the world should he win here and Woods not finish any
better than 16th.
"Where Tiger was and where he is now, I mean we're in different
worlds now," Els said. "A lot of players feel that we can compete
with him now at the highest level."
Just two years ago, neither Els nor anyone else expected Woods
to be this beatable. He came into the Open at Muirfield that year
looking for his third straight major title and a possible Grand
It all came apart in the third round when he shot a shocking 81,
and some believe Woods has never been the same since.
"Right now it's different," Els said. "I feel that when he
plays really well he's going to shoot a 67. But if I play well I
can shoot that score as well, and I can keep doing that for three
or four days. I think we're more on a level playing field now, and
maybe because Tiger has come back to the field a little bit."