All the noise is gone now. There’s no entourage, no hubbub, no fuss. Instead of playing with David Letterman, as he did 20 years ago this month, Ben Curtis is spending the morning teaching southeast Cleveland and preparing for the approximately 750-mile drive to South Carolina for a family vacation.
That kind of low-key Friday morning is how Curtis likes his life two decades after making his major tournament debut at the British Open – and winning. His victory at the Royal St. George’s was an international sensation: he went from being the 396th ranked player in the world, the one who spent part of the tournament week visiting London with his fiancée, to being the first golfer in 90 years to win a major title on his first try. .
He never captured another. Sporadic successes followed – ties for second in both the PGA Championship and Players Championship, a spot on a Ryder Cup-winning team, a few more PGA Tour wins – but never the magic of the major win. He last played in a touring event in 2017, finishing with career earnings of 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 named after him. On Thursday, the Open will start at Royal Liverpool. He could play on it, but he’d rather not.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start in 2003. After the first round, you were five strokes off the lead. After the second, three. After the third, two. When did you start thinking you could win?
Saturday I remember struggling 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 hit three down on that back nine and it just boosted my confidence. When we went to bed that night, I thought, “I’m going to win this thing.” I told Candace that, and she kind of went quiet until the next day.
The back nine on Sunday was not as smooth as the ones on Saturday. Was it the course or the pressure?
Probably the pressure more than anything.
The first nine continued what I was doing on Saturday. In any tournament, but especially a major, it’s hard to play really consistently for 27 holes without having some sort of hiccup. In the back of my mind, I was saying to myself, “It’s hard for everyone.”
Have you watched the round yet?
Twice in 20 years?
We were at a friend’s house, we woke up and he had the Golf Channel on since it was opening week. And so we sat there and watched for a bit, and the kids slowly came down and we watched. And then it kind of spurred, “Hey, let’s take a break since the kids were older.”
When I was playing, I never wanted to watch because I was stubborn and I wanted to focus on the future. Now I look at him and it’s like, “What were we wearing?”
A few days after you won, you told The Times: “It won’t change me. It won’t change who I am.” Made it up?
I’m sure yes. But in terms of personality or things like that, I hope not.
Did that change the way you approached golf?
I wasn’t used to the spotlight, so it was hard to practice, to find that quiet place where I could work. You try to schedule your day and cut it down to a few minutes, but if you’re trying to have a two or three hour practice session and it ends up being six and you’ve only practiced two, it wears out on you.
People are coming in and you’re distracting yourself – and not in a mean way at all – but then you realize you’re putting less and less time into the practice because of it. So that’s what was difficult, or even going out to eat, and it made me realize that I never wanted to be like that — like, I never wanted to be in Tiger Woods’ shoes.
I would like to go under the radar. I wanted to win every week, of course. Everyone does.
I hear you felt pressure to prove the Open wasn’t a fluke.
Definitely. Especially when you’re young and you win early, there’s that pressure that you have to do it again to prove yourself, I guess.
Where does this pressure come from? From inside you? The media? The galleries?
It’s a combination of everything. Thankfully, social media wasn’t a big deal back then. But I felt it internally. I remember practicing and prepping in late 2005, and my college coach just said, Screw it. 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 are doing and, well, maybe that’s not for you.
That was probably the first time I’ve heard that in years.
Back to being Ben Curtis?
Just go back to being me. It reoriented me a bit. I think that came through in the play that year, winning twice.
You train high school students now. What do you tell them about pressure?
They’re worried about breaking 80 or 90, not winning majors. But for them, this is a big deal. I remember the first time you crossed 80, the first time you crossed 70, and what a great achievement that is. So this is their specialization.
I always tell them you can’t force it. It will just happen. You work hard, and you’re just going to crash there.
You can only control yourself and your emotions and try to treat each shot as if it were the first shot. And 99.9 percent of rounds don’t turn out the way you want them to, because they usually derail on the first shot or hole.
Brooks Koepka says he thinks he can win 10 majors. Have you ever let a specific number like that get into your head?
No, but I always dreamed of winning one more and I had some opportunities.
Winning a major puts you in the history books. Would your career have been easier if you hadn’t won so early?
Probably, but it wouldn’t be such a cool story. Like if I had won two other events and then won a major and then kind of disappeared?
Is there such a thing as winning a major too soon?
It’s not so much the win too soon, but maybe the way Koepka did it and won a lot in a few years. Now all of a sudden you think you should win every week.
And the hardest thing – and I fell into that trap myself – was trying to prepare your game just for the majors. If you just do it yourself, if you’re not playing well, what difference does it make if you don’t have confidence? Trust is the most important thing.
I was talking to Max Homa recently, and he said that he realized that he didn’t prepare for the majors like he prepared for everything else and that maybe he should smile more and laugh more.
And truth. When I won the Open, we arrived early just to adjust to the time difference. I played on Saturday and Sunday, and on Monday Candace and I went to London and we were American tourists.
Then I came back and played 18 on Tuesday and nine on Wednesday. But you can overdo it, and I think what Max is saying is that if you treat this like any other event, you’ll be fine.
It’s so hard to do. But every time I’ve won or come close, it’s just, let’s play golf. You play for free.
Wyndham Clark is heading to Royal Liverpool as a champion for the first time. What is his advice for him?
Seize the moment and don’t be afraid to say no. Try to stick to your routine. And the most important thing is just expectations: don’t expect to win. Just go there and try to enjoy the moment. Just like Max said, laugh, have fun. If you get it right and have a chance of winning, great. Otherwise, you’re still the US Open champion, and nobody’s going to take that away from you.
You played two Opens at Royal Liverpool. What do you think?
It’s a very good golf course. I wouldn’t say it was my favorite.
It would be the Royal St. George’s favorite?
It’s up there, but I love Birkdale, just the look, the feel of the place. And, of course, St. Andrews is special, but everyone is great. I hated Troon the first time around just because I played badly.
You can play the Open until you are 60. Why not play?
Um, I don’t want to work. And, two, I’m not going to show up just to throw a pair of 78s, 79s. It’s not fair to the other guys. You’re basically taking a spot off a kid in a qualifier or someone trying to play for the first time.
I know what it takes to play well. I can go out here and play well. But when you play 10 times a year, it’s a whole different thing.
You last played at a touring event in 2017. Was it hard to leave or was it liberating?
A little bit of both. I think I could have done that a few years earlier and kept playing like crap, frankly speaking. Once I did, it was great.
When did you realize you didn’t want that chaotic touring life anymore?
When the children reached school age. When they were little and you could take them with you, it was great. So they went to school and their schedule is limited, and you’re traveling and playing in these tournaments and you’re on your own.
I never played that much, but when you’re used to playing them in like 20, 22 events a year and all of a sudden it’s only six or seven, and now you’re there for 20, 22 events on your own, it becomes difficult. . It doesn’t matter how good the resort is. Every hotel room, whether it’s a Ritz-Carlton or a Courtyard Marriott, is a rectangular room with a bathroom. And it’s hard for the family at home too, because they want me home.
Many retired golfers live in Florida seaside towns. You chose Ohio. Why?
If you are on Jupiter, you are among your peers. Up here, we’re alone. The people are great and down to earth and we wanted that for our kids. It’s just who we are and where we are. This is home.
When you came off tour, did you think you wanted to coach high school students?
Think you wanted to run a gym?
It took some time. For the rest of 2017, I was thinking about what I wanted to do, and that’s when the academy came about. Ohio has a rich golfing history and it seems that all the greats have played here at some point in their careers. You look at Jack Nicklaus, growing up in Ohio, and Arnold Palmer lived in Cleveland for a while.
I started to reflect on how I grew up and thought, “Who here is going to help these kids navigate the dreams I had?” I had to rely on my parents and luckily I went to a college where the coach was super involved.
When I teach, it’s not always about X’s and O’s and hitting this spot or this swing plane or whatever. I have these good kids, and they want to rock like Koepka. I’m like, “Listen, rock like you. What your swing looks like now will not be what it will be when you are 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 do you have in mind?” And they said: “You, and that’s it.”
I asked them to take a few days off and try to find someone. I didn’t want to put that pressure on my son, but he said, “coach, dad, coach”.
What mistakes are you seeing that weren’t really a thing when you were learning to play?
Children are more concerned about their swing technique and appearance than their performance. As long as you shoot 72 on the scoreboard, it doesn’t matter how you hit 72. It’s a good score! Just worry about it.
Twenty years ago, you said that if you weren’t playing the Open, you would “probably” be watching the tournament on TV. Will you watch this time?
It’s funny: It’s been seven years since I played, but I wake up now and realize it’s almost over. You totally forget. You get up and start doing your thing, and it’s 2 o’clock and you think you’re going to see what golf is all about – and then it’s over.
The first three years were like that, and I totally missed it. Now I’m going to watch it and I’m going to like it.