Todd Hamilton, a so-called PGA Tour rookie, maneuvered around Royal Troon over the weekend in a state of eerie serenity on a grand stage that understandably could have produced a 54-hole leader with a churning stomach and knocking knees down the stretch of the world's oldest major championship, the 133rd British Open.
Instead, he insisted, "I felt very calm the whole day. Sometimes I get in situations where you should be biting off all your fingernails. I'm usually kind of a nervous guy, especially if I haven't been playing very well, which I hadn't coming into this tournament. But sometimes I get out there and it almost seems like fun."
Certainly it looked that way in the final round, and through a riveting four-hole aggregate score playoff against Ernie Els after both men had ended at 10-under 274 over 72 holes. Hamilton (69) prevailed when he parred all four extra holes, while Els (68) made bogey at the third, a 222-yard par 3, and had to settle for his second runner-up finish in a major this year after Phil Mickelson made five birdies in his last seven holes to beat him by a shot at the Masters in April.
Early Sunday evening, Els, a three-time major champion, had the slightly dazed look of a man who could hardly believe he had played so well on the toughest back nine on the British Open rotation in the final two rounds, and still lost. He had birdied three of the last six holes both Saturday and Sunday, but missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that would have given him the victory. Instead, he came up one shot short against a classic journeyman who had spent most of the past two decades toiling in obscurity on the Asian and Japanese tours.
But that's where 38-year-old Hamilton also learned how to win, on often poorly conditioned golf courses that also taught him to deal with the occasional bad bounce, or horrid lie that British Opens and links golf are often wont to produce. He'd won 11 events on the Japanese circuit alone, four last season, and prevailed in his first year on the PGA Tour at the Honda Classic in February after surviving the grueling tour qualifying tournament late last fall on his eighth try.
In the early 1990s, Hamilton had almost quit the game, but two of his sponsoring benefactors decided to put up just enough cash to allow him one more shot at the Asian circuit. He went on to win the order of merit money list there in 1992 and earned a promotion to the Japanese Tour, where he made a reasonably comfortable living over most of the next 10 years.
"He's a very cool customer," Peter Dawson, chairman of the Royal & Ancient governing body for the tournament, said here on Monday. "I'm sure internally his emotions were showing it. But the winner was very vigorously tested by arguably the best player in the world at this time [Els], with Phil Mickelson also breathing down his neck, and withstood it."
Both Els and Mickelson have dominated major play this year. Els was only two off the lead at the U.S. Open going into the final round before a disastrous 80 on an out of control golf course at Shinnecock Hills dropped him into a tie for ninth place. Mickelson has ended one, two and three in the first three majors, and had the best finish of his life in a British Open.
The same could not be said for Tiger Woods, who ended tied for ninth and has now gone nine straight majors without a victory since prevailing at the 2002 U.S. Open on Long Island. Woods continued to scatter drives off the tee, and his normally lethal putting stroke seemed to desert him at the most critical junctures in his four rounds. Two bogeys early on his back nine Sunday, when he missed 15-footers to save par at 11 and 12, ultimately proved fatal.
Woods, as always, blamed several easily correctable mistakes, for his failure this week and vowed to fix them by the next time he plays in the Buick Open in two weeks, and the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin two weeks later. Then again, he has uttered the same words -- "I'm close" -- after most of his recent major losses, when he's been unable to summon the sort of weekend rounds necessary to end his skid. Consider, for example, that on his last seven Sundays at the majors, he hasn't had a round in the 60s, with a stroke average of 73, including Sunday's one-over 72.
This week, he came perilously close to also losing his status as the world's No. 1 ranked golfer, a level he reached for the first time in June, 1997, and hasn't dropped since. If Els had prevailed this week and Woods finished 17th or higher, Els would have replaced him as the official top man in the game Woods once totally dominated in a stretch of seven victories in 11 majors from 1999 to 2002. Els was bold enough to say earlier in the week the gap between Woods and the top players in the game had narrowed considerably, and that Woods no longer was a feared foe by the game's elite.
The fact that seven of the last eight major winners were first-time major champions certainly quantifies that assertion, as well as the notion that even previously obscure players like Ben Curtis (2003 British Open), Shaun Micheel (2003 PGA Championship) and now Hamilton can compete in and win the game's most pressure-filled events. Woods can take some solace from the fact that Jack Nicklaus, at roughly the same age, had a run of 12 straight majors without a win, before getting back on track to accumulate a record 18 major titles.
"The [British] Open championship has been in the past studded with multiple winners of the event," Dawson said. "But the last we had was Greg Norman in 1993. There now seem to be a lot more people capable of doing it. There are a number of players who have talent and have put their hard work to good use. . . . Todd Hamilton was truly grateful for being here and for winning it. He behaved impeccably, a thoroughly nice guy. . . . I'm sure he'll be a worthy champion who will carry the Claret Jug around the world with aplomb."