All of the noise is gone now. There is no entourage, no hubbub, no fuss. Instead of yukking it up with David Letterman, as he did 20 years ago this month, Ben Curtis is spending the morning teaching southeast of Cleveland and steeling himself for the roughly 750-mile drive to South Carolina for a family vacation.
This kind of understated Friday morning is very much how Curtis likes his life two decades after he made his major tournament debut at the British Open — and won. His victory at Royal St. George’s was an international sensation: He went from being the world’s 396th-ranked player, the one who had spent part of tournament week sightseeing in 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 at a P.G.A. Championship and a Players Championship, a spot on a Ryder Cup-winning team, a few other PGA Tour victories — but never the major-winning magic. He last played a tour event in 2017, finishing with career earnings of more than $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 that bears his name. On Thursday, the Open will begin at Royal Liverpool. He could play in it, but he’d rather not.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Curtis celebrates with the claret jug following his victory in the Open Championship at Royal St George’s in 2003.Credit…Andrew Parsons/PA Wire, via Associated Press
Let’s start in 2003. After the first round, you were five shots off the lead. After the second, three. After the third, two. When did you start to think you could win?
Saturday, I remember struggling the first nine holes, and then something — I don’t know if I just calmed down, maybe thought it’s over, I don’t know — happened. I shot three under on that back nine, and it just boosted my confidence. When we went to bed that night, I was like, “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 wasn’t as smooth as Saturday’s. 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 a major especially, it’s hard to play really consistent for 27 holes without having some kind of hiccup. In the back of my mind, I kept telling myself, “It’s tough for everybody.”
Ever watched the round?
Twice in 20 years?
We were at a friend’s house, woke up and he had the Golf Channel on since it was Open week. And so we sat there and watched it a little bit, and the kids slowly came down and we watched it. And then that kind of spurred it on to, “Hey, let’s take the time since the kids were older.”
When I was playing, I never wanted to watch it because I was stubborn and wanted to concentrate on the future. Now I look at it though, 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.” Did it?
I’m sure it did. But personality-wise or things like that, I would hope not.
Did it change how you approached golf?
I wasn’t used to the limelight, and so it was just difficult to go practice, to go find that quiet place where I could get work done. You try to schedule your day and you tried to have it down to within 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 for two, it wears on you.
People are coming up and you’re getting distracted — and not in a mean way, by any stretch — but then you realize you’re putting less and less time into the practice because of that. So that’s what was difficult, or even just going out to eat, and it made me realize I never wanted to be like that — like, I would never want to be in Tiger Woods’s shoes.
I’d want to come in under the radar. I wanted to win every week, of course. Everyone does.
I’ve heard you felt pressure to prove that the Open hadn’t been a fluke.
Definitely. Especially when you’re young and you win early, there’s that pressure of you’ve got to do it again to prove your worth, I guess.
Where does that pressure comes from? From within yourself? The media? The galleries?
It’s a combination of everything. Luckily, social media wasn’t a huge deal back then. But I did feel it internally. I remember practicing and getting ready at the end of 2005, and my college coach just went: Screw this. Just be you. Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not, because you’re trying to emulate what the top players in the world are doing, and, well, maybe that’s not for you.
That was probably the first time I had heard that in years.
Just go back to being Ben Curtis?
Just go back to being me. That refocused me a little bit. I think it showed in the play that year, winning twice.
You coach high schoolers now. What do you tell them about pressure?
They’re worried about breaking 80 or 90, not winning majors. But to them, that’s a big deal. I remember the first time you break 80, the first time you break 70 and how big of an accomplishment that is. So that’s their major.
I always tell them you can’t force it. It’s just going to happen. You work hard, and it’s just going to fall in there.
You can only control yourself and your emotions and try to treat every shot like it’s the first shot. And 99.9 percent of the rounds do not go the way you want them because usually it’s derailed within the first shot or hole.
Brooks Koepka says he thinks he can win 10 majors. Did you ever let a specific number like that enter your head?
No, but I always dreamed of winning another one and had a couple of opportunities.
Winning a major put you in the history books. Would your career have been easier if you hadn’t won so early?
Probably, but it wouldn’t be as cool of a 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 early?
It’s not so much the winning the one too early, but maybe the way Koepka did it and winning a lot within a couple of years. Now, all of a sudden, you think you should win every week.
And the hardest thing — and I fell into that trap, too — was trying to gear up your game just for the majors. If you just do that alone, if you’re not playing good going into it, what difference does it make if you don’t have the confidence? Confidence is the biggest thing.
I was talking to Max Homa recently, and he said he had realized he didn’t prepare for the majors how he prepared for everything else and that maybe he should smile more and laugh more.
It’s true. When I won at the Open, we got there early just to get adjusted to the time change. I played on Saturday and Sunday, and then on Monday, Candace and I went into London and were these 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 if you treat it like any other event, you’ll be fine.
It’s so hard to do. But every time I’ve won or came close, it was just, let’s go play golf. You play free.
Wyndham Clark is going to Royal Liverpool as a first-time major champion. What’s your advice for him?
Enjoy the moment, and don’t be afraid to say no. Try to stick to your routine. And the biggest thing is just expectations: Don’t expect to win. Just go out there and try to enjoy the moment. Just like Max said, laugh, have some fun. If you make the cut and have a chance to win, great. If not, you’re still the U.S. Open champ, and no one is ever going to take that away.
You’ve played two Opens at Royal Liverpool. What do you make of it?
It’s a really good golf course. I wouldn’t say it was my favorite.
Would Royal St. George’s be the favorite?
It’s up there, but I love Birkdale, just the look of it, the feel of the place. And obviously St. Andrews is special, but they’re all great. I hated Troon the first time just because I played badly.
You can play the Open until you’re 60. Why not play it?
One, I don’t want to put the work in. And, two, I’m not going to show up just to shoot a pair of 78s, 79s. It’s not fair to the other guys. You’re basically taking a spot away from a kid at a qualifier or somebody who is trying to play for the first time.
I know what it takes to play well. I can go out here and play OK. But when you play 10 times a year, it’s a totally different thing.
You last played a tour event in 2017. Was it hard to walk away, or was it liberating?
A little bit of both. I think I could have a couple of years earlier and just kept hanging on and playing like crap, to put it frankly. Once I did, it was great.
When did you recognize that you didn’t want that chaotic tour life anymore?
When the kids got to school age. When they were young and you could take them with you, it was great. Then they went to school and their schedule is limited, and you’re traveling and playing in these tournaments, and you’re alone.
I never played a huge amount, but when you’re used to having them out for about 20, 22 events a year and suddenly it’s only for six or seven, and now you’re out there for 20, 22 events on your own, it becomes tough. It doesn’t matter how nice the resort is. Every hotel room, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Ritz-Carlton or a Courtyard Marriott, it’s a rectangle room with a bathroom in it. And it’s tough on the family at home, too, because they want me home.
A lot of retired golfers live in beachfront towns in Florida. You chose Ohio. Why?
If you’re in Jupiter, you’re among your peers. Up here, we’re alone. The people are great, down to earth, and we wanted that for our kids. It’s just who we are and where we’re at. This is home.
When you left the tour, did you think you wanted to coach high schoolers?
Think you wanted to run an academy?
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 history of golf, and it seems like all of the greats come through 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 just started reflecting on how I grew up, and I was thinking, “Who around here is going to help these kids navigate the dreams that I had?” I had to rely on my parents, and then luckily I went to a college where the coach was super involved.
When I teach, it’s not always about Xs and Os and hitting it to this spot or in this swing plane or whatever. I have these good kids, and they want to swing it like Koepka. I’m like, “Listen, swing it like you. What your swing looks like now is not going to be what it looks like when you’re 25.”
What persuaded 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 I was like, “Well, who do you have in mind?” And they were like, “You, and that’s it.”
I asked them to take a couple of days and try to find someone. I didn’t want to put that pressure on my son, but he was like, “coach, Dad, coach.”
What errors are you seeing that weren’t really a thing when you were learning to play?
Kids are more worried about their swing technique and the way it looks than how it performs. As long as you shoot a 72 on the scorecard, it doesn’t matter how you shoot 72. It’s a good score! Just worry about that.
Twenty years ago, you said that if you hadn’t been playing the Open you “probably” would have been watching the tournament on TV. Will you be watching 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 stuff, and it’s 2 o’clock and you think you’ll see what the golf is — and then it’s over.
The first three years were like that, and I totally missed it. Now, I’ll watch it, and I enjoy it.