All the noise is gone now. There is no entourage, no fuss, no fuss. Instead of hooking up with David Letterman, as he did 20 years ago this month, Ben Curtis spends his morning teaching southeast in Cleveland and bracing himself for the roughly 750-mile drive to South Carolina for a family vacation.
This kind of simple Friday morning is very much how Curtis loves his life two decades after he made his British Open debut – and won. His win at Royal St. George was an international sensation: he went from being the 396th-ranked player in the world, someone who spent part of the tournament week sightseeing in London with his fiancée, to being the first golfer in 90 years to win the awards. a major title in his first attempt.
No one else was arrested. Sporadic success followed – second PGA and Players Championship showdowns, a spot on the Ryder Cup-winning team, some other PGA Tour victories – but it wasn’t the big one. He last played a touring event in 2017, earning over $13.7 million.
Today, he coaches his son’s golf team at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio, and teaches at a golf academy that bears his name. On Thursday, the Liverpool Open will start at Royal Liverpool. He can play in it, but he would rather not.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start in 2003. After the first round, you were five shots off the lead. After two, three. After the third, two. When did you start to think you could win?
On Saturday, I remember I had the first nine holes, and then something — I don’t know if I just calmed down, maybe I thought it was over, I don’t know — happened. I put a three under that quarterback nine, and it boosted my confidence. When we went to bed that night, I was like, “I’m going to win this thing.” I told Candace this, and she was kind of silent until the next day.
Sunday afternoon nine was not as smooth as Saturday. Was it the track or the pressure?
Perhaps more stress than anything else.
The top nine continued what I was doing on Saturday. In any tournament, but a major one in particular, it’s hard to play really consistently for 27 holes without some sort of hiccup. In the back of my mind, I kept telling myself, “It’s hard for everyone.”
Have you seen the tour before?
Twice in 20 years?
We were at a friend’s house, we woke up and he had the golf channel up and running since it was open week. So we just sat there and watched it for a bit, and the kids slowly got off and watched it. And then it kind of prompted, “Hey, let’s take the time since the kids were a little older.”
When I was playing, I never wanted to watch it because I was stubborn and wanted to focus on the future. Now I look at it though and it’s like, “What were we wearing?”
A few days after you win, she told the Times: “It won’t change me. It won’t change who I am.” I did?
I’m sure she did. But in terms of character or things like that, I hope not.
Has it changed the way you approach golf?
I wasn’t used to the lights, so it was hard for me to go practice, go find that quiet place where I could get my work done. You try to schedule your day and you try to cut it down within a few minutes, but if you’re trying to get a two- or three-hour training session in and you end up with six hours and you only trained for two hours, it wears out on you.
People come and you get distracted — not in a mean way, by any means — but then you realize you’re spending less and less time practicing because of it. That’s what was hard, or even just going out to eat, made me realize that I never wanted to be like that — like, I would never want to be in the shoes of Tiger Woods.
I want to get under the radar. I wanted to win every week, of course. Everyone does.
I heard you felt pressure to prove that The Open Championship wasn’t a fluke.
definitely. Especially when you’re young and winning early, there’s pressure to do it again to prove your worth, I think.
Where does this pressure come from? Who is inside you? The media? galleries?
It’s a mixture of everything. Fortunately, social media was not a big deal at that time. But I felt it internally. I remember I was training and preparing at the end of 2005, and my college coach just went: Get rid of this. Just be you. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, because you’re trying to emulate what the best players in the world do, and maybe it’s just not for you.
This was probably the first time I’d heard that in years.
Just come back to being Ben Curtis?
Just counting as me. That refocused me a bit. I think he appeared in the play that year, winning twice.
You are training high school students now. What do you tell them about pressure?
They worry about breaking 80 or 90, not winning the majors. But for them, this is a big problem. I remember the first time I broke eighty, the first time I broke seventy, and what a huge achievement it was. This is their specialty.
I always tell them you can’t force them. This will just happen. You work hard, and you’ll fall in there.
You can only control yourself and your emotions and try to treat each shot as if it were the first. And 99.9 percent of rounds don’t go the way you want them to because they usually derail during the first putt or hole.
Brooks Koepka says he thinks he can win 10 majors. Have you ever allowed a certain number like this to enter your head?
No, but I always dreamed of winning one and had two chances.
Winning a major puts you in the history books. Could your career have been easier if you hadn’t won earlier?
Maybe, but it wouldn’t be a great story. Like, if I had won a couple more events and then won a major and then it just kind of disappeared?
Is there such a thing as winning a major too early?
It’s not about winning so early, but maybe the way Koepka did it and won a lot in a couple of years. Now, all of a sudden, you think you have to win every single week.
And the hardest part – and I fell into that trap too – was trying to build your game just for the big companies. If you’re doing it alone, if you’re not playing well, what difference does it make if you don’t have confidence? Confidence is the most important thing.
I was talking to Max Homa recently, and he said he realized he wasn’t preparing for the majors, how he prepared for everything else, and that maybe he should smile more and laugh more.
it’s the truth. When I won the World Open, we got there early just to get acclimated to the time change. I played on Saturday and Sunday, and then on Monday, Candice and I went to London and we were these American tourists.
Then I went back and played 18 on Tuesday and nine on Wednesday. But you can overdo it, and I think what Max is saying is if you treat it like any other event, you’ll be fine.
It is very difficult to do this. But every time I won or came close, it was just a let’s play golf. You play for free.
Wyndham Clarke goes to Royal Liverpool as main champion for the first time. What do you advise him?
Enjoy the moment and don’t be afraid to say no. Try to stick to your routine. The most important thing is just the expectations: don’t expect to win. Just go out there and try to enjoy the moment. Just like Max said, laugh, have some fun. If you make the cut and have a chance to win, great. If not, you are still the US Open Champion, and no one will ever take that away.
I played two opening matches at Royal Liverpool. What do you think that?
It’s a really good golf course. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite.
Will Royal St George be the favourite?
It’s there, but I like Birkdale, just the look of it, the sense of place. And obviously St. Andrews is special, but they are all wonderful. I hated Tron the first time only because I played badly.
You can play Open up to 60. Why not play it?
First, I don’t want to put work into it. And secondly, I’m not going to come just to shoot a pair of 78’s and 79’s. This is not fair to others. You are basically taking a spot away from a kid in a qualifier or someone trying to play for the first time.
I know what it takes to play well. I can get out of here and play well. But when you play 10 times a year, it’s completely different.
She last played an event on tour in 2017. Was it hard to walk away from or was it liberating?
a little bit of both. I think I could have had a couple of years earlier and still stuck playing like crap, to put it bluntly. Once I did, it was great.
When did you realize you didn’t want this messy ride anymore?
When children reach school age. When they were young and you could take them with you, that was great. Then they go to school and their schedule is limited, and you travel and play in these tournaments, and you’re on your own.
I’ve never played a huge amount, but when you get used to taking them out for about 20 or 22 events a year and all of a sudden it’s only for six or seven events, and now you’re out there on 20 or 22 events on your own, it gets tough. No matter how nice the resort is. Every room in a hotel, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Ritz-Carlton or the Courtyard Marriott, it’s a rectangular room with a bathroom. And that’s hard on the family at home, too, because they want me at home.
Many retired golfers live in beachside towns in Florida. I chose Ohio. Why?
If you are in Jupiter, you are among the fellows. Here, we are alone. The people are wonderful, down to earth, and we wanted that for our kids. It’s just who we are and where we are. This is the house.
When you left the tour, did you think you wanted to coach high school students?
Think you want to run an academy?
It took a while. For the rest of 2017, I was thinking about what I wanted to do, and that’s when the Academy came up. Ohio State has a rich history in golf, and all the greats seem to come from here at some point in their careers. You look at Jack Nicklaus, who grew up in Ohio, and Arnold Palmer lived in Cleveland for a while.
I was just starting to think about how I was raised, and I was thinking, “Who here is going to help these kids get through the dreams I’ve been having?” I had to rely on my parents, and then luckily I went to a college where the coach was very involved.
When I’m teaching, it’s not always about Xs and Os hitting this spot or this swing plane or whatever. I have these good kids, and they want to swing like Koepka. I’m like, “Listen, swing like you. What your swing looks like now won’t be what it looks like when you’re 25.”
What convinced you to coach the high school team?
My son was on the team, and the coach decided to retire. I got a call from the athletic director and said, “Well, who are you considering?” And they were like, “You, and that’s it.”
I asked them to spend two days and try to find someone. I didn’t want to pressure my son, but he was like, “Coach, Dad, Coach.”
What bugs are you seeing weren’t really a thing when I was Learn to play?
Children are more concerned about the technique of swinging and the way it looks than how it is performed. As long as you shoot 72 on the scorecard, it doesn’t matter how you shoot 72. It’s a good score! Just worry about it.
Twenty years ago, I said that if you hadn’t played the Open Championship, you probably would have watched the tournament on TV. Will you watch this time?
It’s funny: It’s been seven years since I played, but now I wake up and realize it’s almost over. completely forgot. You get up and start doing your thing, it’s two o’clock and you think you’ll see what golf is all about – and then it’s over.
The first three years were like this, and I totally missed it. Now, I’m going to watch it, and I’m enjoying it.