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Last Updated: Monday, 5 July, 2004, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
Curtis serves Sandwich surprise
By Matt Slater
Golf editor

Open winner Ben Curtis
Given recent events, surprise winners in major sports events are in danger of becoming so last season.

Which is ironic, since it was only last season that golf witnessed perhaps the most surprising winner of all time.

After all, thanks to cheap holidays, late night eateries and Harry Enfield, everybody has heard of Greece. And even occasional tennis watchers were aware of a leggy Russian called Maria something-ova - largely thanks to the unstinting efforts of tennis bibles like the Daily Star.

But nobody, not even the American journalists in the press tent at Royal St George's, had heard of Ben Curtis.

Midway through that final Sunday a victory for the unheralded Curtis was the last thing many in that press tent, and the galleries, wanted.

A shock win for a rookie ranked 396th in the world seemed to only suit the bookies.

It didn't seem in keeping with what had been four days of sparkling golf from the world's best golfers on the world's best seaside links.

And I'm not just writing this because I wrote the following the day before: "With no disrespect intended to Curtis, the other four players on one over par are rightly considered to be more realistic winners come Sunday evening."

I still stand by that. Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Kenny Perry and Vijay Singh were more realistic winners than a 26-year-old with no experience of links courses, let alone major leaderboards.

And that's not even mentioning the men ahead of Curtis going into the final round, Thomas Bjorn and Davis Love.

But since when, as Portugal and Serena Williams have just discovered, has sport been realistic?

The Sandwich scoreboard congratulates the surprise winner
The Sandwich scoreboard congratulates the surprise winner

We expected a great champion to emerge from an epic clash of the world's best players, and that's what we got. It's just not the one we expected.

Cynics may make snide remarks about the Open throwing up another "lucky" winner, but Curtis earned his right to be in a position to win when more illustrious names were faltering.

The numbers tell their own story. Curtis was the only player under par for the simple reason that he found fairways, hit greens in regulation, putted well and took birdies when the course offered them.

But as well as Curtis played - and it cannot be understated just how well he did on a diabolically hard course - it must be said there were others that could, and perhaps should, have won had the fates been smiling in their direction.

The chief among these was Bjorn. His stunning meltdown in a greenside bunker at 16 was the kind of experience that could scar a man for life.

Three shots clear with four to play, the 31-year-old Dane, who had come back from a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on Thursday, took three swipes to get out of the bunker and carded a calamitous double bogey.

Stunned, the hitherto unflappable Bjorn bogeyed the 17th to be left needing a birdie at the last to force a play-off against a man who had just sent the press corps into a scurry of fact-finding industry.

Ben Curtis and Thomas Bjorn
Curtis raises the trophy that really should have been Bjorn's

While Curtis diligently, and disbelievingly, prepared himself on the practice range for a four-hole shootout, Bjorn missed his putt and the Open had its first debutant winner since Tom Watson in 1975.

Bjorn will undoubtedly be plagued by nightmares about his third second place finish at a major.

But what of the others?

Ernie Els defended his title with dignity but little luck, and he never played quite well enough to look like becoming the first repeat champion since Watson in 1983.

Much the same can be said of Woods, who hovered around the lead all weekend without ever really convincing anybody that he had brought his A game to Kent.

The much hoped-for challenge from England's young generation of talented players never materialised, but an old stager did briefly threaten to win the Claret Jug for the host nation.

For a thrilling nine-hole stretch in the middle of his fourth round, Nick Faldo attracted the biggest gallery and the loudest cheers at Sandwich all week.

A remarkable seventh major seemed in his grasp after the then 46-year-old had moved to four under for his round and even par for the tournament.

That dream finale wasn't to be, though Sandwich was left with another.

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