Grandfather's course was Curtis' school

There is no mill and no creek at Mill Creek Golf Club in Ostrander, Ohio, and for far too long on that July Sunday, there was no reception on the three big televisions inside, either.

DAVE CALDWELL

Ben Curtis watches the flight of his shot on the 5th tee during the final round at the Open Championship.-Pic. AFP

There is no mill and no creek at Mill Creek Golf Club in Ostrander, Ohio, and for far too long on that July Sunday, there was no reception on the three big televisions inside, either.

It was a gorgeous afternoon in central Ohio, a perfect golf day, but almost everyone had stopped playing to watch golf on TV — and one golfer in particular. But the screens were blank. This was a big problem.

"We had nothing,'' Bob Curtis, the course superintendent, said, chuckling. "It was not pretty.''

Curtis' 26-year-old son, Ben, was still in contention to win the British Open, his first major tournament. Ben Curtis had four bogeys on the back nine, and Bob Curtis began to remind himself that second place was not bad at all for a first major.

Then Thomas Bjorn, the leader, needed three shots to get out of the 16th bunker and faltered on the last two holes.

Ben Curtis, who learned how to play golf on this public course with the tight fairways and small greens, was soon kissing the Claret Jug.

The cable had been restored by then, and the crowd at Mill Creek, which numbered at least 100, began a long and loud celebration.

"People who don't even play golf are coming in to say congratulations,'' said Annie Boehm, an employee at the club.

Ben Curtis' friends and family made sure to remember an old high school coach named Bill Black, too. Without Black, his grandfather, Curtis might have never taken up golf and turned it into an occupation — one in which he earned more than $1.1 million on that Sunday.

"He would have absolutely loved to have been there,'' Bob Curtis said.

Black, who died in February, opened this course in 1973 because he owned a patch of land and wanted a place to play golf when he retired. Ben Curtis learned how to play golf on his grandfather's short but challenging public course.

"This is where we grew up and played,'' Nick Curtis, Ben's 24-year-old brother, said. "It's a pretty tight course. You have to hit it straight.''

The Curtis family lived next to the course until Ben was about 12. Bob Curtis, Black's son-in-law, remembered on that Sunday how Ben decided one day that he needed to work on his putting. He was about five at the time.

That would have been fine, but Ben was wearing his pajamas, and it was 11 at night. He did not do it again, Curtis said in a telephone interview from the course. His mother got mad at him.

Ben Curtis stuck with it. As he said in his news conference, "I grew up with the game right around me.''

Janice Curtis, his mother, recalled in a telephone interview from Ostrander how her son tried to model his swing after some of the better local golfers who played at Mill Creek.

"But there were times when we'd have to kick him off the course to do other things,'' she said. "He had to be a regular kid, too.''

Mill Creek is not Pebble Beach. The course measures 6,310 yards from the blue tees, and the weekday greens fees are $18, $29 with a cart. Ostrander is 32 miles north of Columbus, and the family likes to say Mill Creek is the course in the country.

"He built it because he just got tired of looking for a place to play,'' Bob Curtis said of his father-in-law.

It is not a links course. But Bob Curtis likes to mow only a thin strip down the fairways to make it tougher. Ben Curtis learned how to be accurate.

He earned a scholarship to Kent State and was twice the Ohio amateur champion. He also met a golfer named Candace Beatty, who would become his fiancee.

The British Open was only his 16th PGA tour event. Nick Curtis figured his brother would eventually become a good pro golfer. But not now — not this early.

"He's always been good at keeping the ball low,'' Nick Curtis said, "and I thought maybe in five years he'd take a run at a championship, but not this year.''

Ben Curtis was only two shots off the lead entering the final round. Bob Curtis decided to mow a few greens early in the day, so he did not watch his son's entire final round, but Ben soon created a buzz around Mill Creek.

The regulars knew a little secret about Ben. As his mother, Janice, said, "This is the time of year that he always plays well.''

Nick, who works at the club, watched his brother's first eight holes at his parents' house, then went to Mill Creek and watched until the cable went down. He went home, then came back after Bjorn teed off at No. 18.

He was joined by golfers who cut short their rounds, even though the greens fees jump all the way to $27 ($38 with a cart) on the weekends. "They'd come in at the turn and didn't go back out,'' Boehm said.

When Bjorn's putt stopped short of the 18th hole, giving Curtis the victory, they cheered as if they were in the grandstands at the British Open. Beer flowed.

Champagne was opened. But this was not a normal victory celebration, by any stretch. "My body is numb,'' Nick Curtis said late on that Sunday afternoon.

New York Times News Service