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Michael Bamberger
July 26, 2004
With a game ideal for Royal Troon, if not the PGA Tour, journeyman Todd Hamilton beat the world's best to win the British Open
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July 26, 2004

A Horse For The Gorse

With a game ideal for Royal Troon, if not the PGA Tour, journeyman Todd Hamilton beat the world's best to win the British Open

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The Sparkly names were all over the yellow-and-black British Open leader board on Sunday afternoon—Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson and even, for a while, Tiger Woods—all of them playing for the claret jug and their place in golfing history. They were elites looking to become more special yet, men whose reputations rise and fall with every major they win or lose. And in their midst was a working man, Todd Hamilton, of Oquawka, Ill., married for 13 years to his high school prom date, a million frequent-flier miles on his clubs and in the lines around his narrowed eyes. He was paired with Els in the day's final twosome at Royal Troon in Scotland, and he wasn't playing his part. He wasn't going away.

Talk about your old-school pro. He built his swing on a public nine-holer. There are metal spikes in his shoes and old Mizuno blade irons—thinner than a teaspoon—in his bag. He doesn't have a swing coach or a psychologist or a celebrity caddie. He's just a golfer, trying to make money at the thing he does best. There was a lucky quarter in his pocket on Sunday, minted in 1965, the year he was born, and a poker chip marked Lady Luck. The story of a player and his superstitions used to be boilerplate, but not since golfers started measuring their body fat.

He's played in India and Pakistan and Thailand and Korea and, primarily over the past decade, in Japan. This year, at 38, he finally became a regular on the PGA Tour—the richest tour in the world—after his eighth trip to Q school. Don't confuse Todd Hamilton with Ben Curtis, the untested kid from Ohio who won last year's British Open when the stars all bungled on Sunday. Hamilton won four times in Japan in 2003, three times on windy, seaside courses not too different from breezy Troon. He won the Honda Classic in March, a stop on the PGA Tour's Florida swing. Still, none of that made a name for him. When he was paired with Woods in the third round of the Memorial tournament last month, he stuck out his hand and said, " Todd Hamilton." At an event in Japan last year he checked out of the tournament hotel, where the rooms were $150 per night, and into his caddie's $50-a-night hotel. When you're playing golf for money, you can never forget that the less you spend, the more you keep.

Hamilton began the final round with a one-shot lead over the lordly Els and two shots ahead of a threesome that included two of golf's leading men, Mickelson, the Masters champion, and Retief Goosen, the U.S. Open champion, plus Thomas Levet, a Frenchman likely to be a Ryder Cup player come September. Woods was four shots behind, and even though he no longer stands over his ball as if he owns the course and every player on it, he still has more major titles than all the aforementioned players combined.

But Woods doesn't make players quake these days, and on Sunday in Scotland he was never a serious threat to end his drought in majors (now nine events long). Mickelson's play in the British finale was a thing of beauty, as it has been all year: high shots, low shots, shots curving left, shots curving right, his endearing, impish smile, now another asset of his game. (Wherever he goes, the crowds are behind him.) His final score at nine-under left him a shot out of what looked to be a David and Goliath playoff.

For a while it seemed as if Hamilton might earn the $1.35 million first-place paycheck without putting in any overtime. He doesn't have a game that will win on many PGA Tour courses, but it was perfect for Troon, where you cannot allow the winds off the Firth of Clyde to get hold of your ball. Hamilton hits low, running, fading iron shots and spectacular low, running chips. He has always been a superb putter, particularly on slow greens, and Troon's were country-club speed. When he holed a little downhill chip for a birdie on 14 on Sunday, the applause for the American golfer of British ancestry was polite and respectful, but nothing more. Els—winner of three majors, twice in playoffs-had played his way back into contention after a double bogey on 10, but after Hamilton's chip-in he looked as if he had been slugged in the stomach, his face blank and blanched. You may remember the many times Greg Norman looked the same way. Els's caddie, Ricci Roberts, was left to speak for the team: "Good chip there, mate."

Hamilton came to the 72nd hole at 11 under par, with Els a shot back. Mickelson and his Chiclets smile were already in the scorer's hut. Els had the honor and smashed a drawing two-iron on the par-4 home hole. Els has many shots Hamilton does not, and that was one of them. Hamilton aimed his two-iron at a distant church steeple and hit a weak fade through the suppertime sunshine and the light rain and the slice wind and into the right rough. As he walked the dead-flat fairway, lined by thousands of spectators sitting in bleachers, he felt as if he were taking the field in a football stadium on game day, but he felt no adrenaline rush. He was calm. He was going to have a great payday no matter what. Majors, he said, were never the ultimate goal for him.

Hamilton made a bogey 5 on 18, pitching his third shot on from the left rough and taking two putts. Els had 10 feet for a birdie and a win. A free throw, really. Tiger, back in his prime, would have buried that putt. Nicklaus, too. Seve and Watson, in their days, the same. Norman? No. Els? "That putt," the South African said, with his trademark candor and clipped accent, "I'm going to be thinking about that putt for a while." It never scared the hole.

For some Americans a trip to Scotland means adjusting to life where the room keys still have teeth and the sinks have two spigots, one for hot water, one for cold. Not for Hamilton. For years, his professional M.O. has been to show up wherever there was a purse, make the necessary adjustments to the course and country and play gritty chip-and-putt golf, even if it was ugly at times. In Japan he'd have rice wrapped in seaweed for breakfast without complaint, if that's all there was. As an American abroad, with his family on the other side of the world, Hamilton was all business from Tuesday's practice round through the last putt. At night he'd read American magazines and talk hockey with his caddie and other American players over dinner. Then on Sunday nights he'd retire to a Tokyo bar called Motown, listen to old hits by the Supremes and close the place down.

But he won the Honda with his wife and kids there, and they were at Troon last week too. His mother was also on the course, carrying a rumpled Sunday newspaper that had accidentally left her son's name off the list of third-round leaders. "If I can find the guy who wrote this, I'm gonna give him a what-for," said Jayne Pearson, the golfer's mother, divorced from Hamilton's father, Kent, who was back in Oquawka. But nobody was overlooking her son in the four-hole playoff, not after his closing 69. In the grandstands at Troon there were new Hamilton fans gleefully putting a "tenner" on the American to beat the world's No. 2 player in overtime. The British 10-pound note has Queen Elizabeth II on one side—and Charles (Survival of the Fittest) Darwin on the other.

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