Ben Curtis' title the upset of all upsets

SANDWICH, England -- For all he knew, Sandwich was an American luxury food item to behold while in Britain, and Kent was the name of the university he attended in his home state of Ohio.

Of course, in this part of the world, they are the names of a small southeastern England town and the county in which it resides.

How would Ben Curtis know?

He had never been here, never played links golf, never played in a major championship.

And he left with the Claret Jug?

As achievements go, Ben Curtis winning the Open Championship at Royal St. George's in 2003 ranks among the most underrated, not only in golf, but in sport.

Forget the Cinderella story, or the underdog or the surprise winner or any of the other similar angles. It just doesn't happen this way.

"Looking back, my whole goal there was just to have fun and play all four days," said Curtis, who returns to Royal St. George's this week for the 140th Open Championship. "And to be holding the Claret Jug at the end of it ... I guess it's a fairy tale in a sense. To be part of it is something unique. I'll never forget what happened, that's for sure."

Curtis, now 34, had never finished in the top 10 of any PGA Tour event, had never played in a major championship, had never even set foot in the United Kingdom until the week prior.

He beat the likes of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III and Thomas Bjorn.

Ben Curtis. Not Ben Hogan or Ben Crenshaw or Curtis Strange.

Ben Curtis was about as likely to win the British Open as Prince Charles.

"I knew Ben was a good player, but it was surprising that he won in his first attempt in a major," recalled Woods, who tied for fourth, two strokes back. "I think it was the first time in about 90 years that someone won in the first major championship that he played.

"Ben played really well on that front nine on Sunday, and he was the only one to finish under par for four rounds. He showed that he deserved to win."

And yet, it was surreal. Curtis began the final round two shots out of the lead and nobody was giving him a chance. Nobody -- despite what they say today -- knew who he was.

As Woods correctly pointed out, Curtis became the first player since Francis Ouimet's historic U.S. Open victory in 1913 to win a major championship in his first attempt.

He got into the field through an obscure exemption category that no longer exists. Ranked 396th in the world at the time and a former Hooters Tour player who was a PGA Tour rookie, Curtis was among the top eight players at the Western Open two weeks prior who were not already exempt. Curtis tied for 13th and was the third player selected from that category.

"We knew who he was but we didn't know how good of a player he was," said Love, who also finished two back. "There were a bunch of guys on that leaderboard the whole day, a lot of guys who could have won that tournament. ... You weren't expecting Ben to win out of the blue like that, but he's proven he's a good, solid player and plays good in tough conditions and hangs in there. That's what you have to do in a major."

Curtis, who is from Ostrander, Ohio, a town of less than 1,000 residents about 30 miles northwest of Columbus, won a tournament on the Hooters Tour in 2002 and finished 10th on the money list, then qualified for the 2003 PGA Tour season at Q-School.

Before the British Open, Curtis had earned less than $200,000 and was in danger of losing his tour card.

"I played with him [at the Western Open], '' Singh said. "He had to shoot a good number to qualify and he did. I told [someone that Saturday], 'This guy can play.' He's no pushover. He's got a very good short game, great putter and he keeps the ball in play. That's what he did."

But even Singh could not have expected Curtis to emerge as the champion golfer of the year, especially as he played the final seven holes in 4 over par, squandering a two-shot lead that gave Bjorn, Singh, Woods and Love a chance.

Playing in the fourth-to-last group, Curtis appeared as though he would unravel as he faced an 8-footer for par on the 18th green. He made the putt, then watched in a trailer as his more famous challengers failed to catch him, including Bjorn, who essentially blew the tournament by twice leaving his ball in a bunker at the 16th. He, along with Singh, finished a stroke back.

"When I first got there, I had no idea where to go," Curtis said of trying to play the course. "It's hard to tell where the first fairway is. Half the time my fiancée [now wife Candace] would walk ahead so I could see the fairway. That's kind of how I got through the week.

"It was very different and unique. I don't know if it was the color or the tightness of the fairways that appealed to me, but it as something that once I got the lines off the tee, I felt a little more comfortable."

Curtis' career since that victory has been marked by inconsistency. He's gone on to win two more times on the PGA Tour, both victories coming in 2006. At the 2008 PGA Championship, he was in contention on the back nine. That was one of just two seasons in which he's finished among the top 30 money winners and he made the U.S. Ryder Cup team that year.

A few months after his victory, Curtis returned to Royal St. George's, and then again in May for a media gathering. Without grandstands and scoreboards, things looked much different.

It didn't take long for the memories to come flooding back. On the 18th hole, Curtis tried the same putt he holed to win the Open and sure enough it dropped in again.

This year, the accommodations will be a bit more lavish, and up to 14 extended family members are coming to England to watch the tournament and soak in the atmosphere.

"Hopefully we'll try to keep it as normal as possible," Curtis said.

And yet, what could ever be normal about Curtis and Royal St. George's?

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.