DUBLIN, Ohio: His winless streak had stretched to 2,045 days, but Ben Curtis said it didn’t feel like that long.
“With kids and everything, time flies,” he said.
The former Kent State All-American and Stow resident admitted his confidence lagged, but insisted faith in his game never wavered during a drought that lasted nearly six years.
Practically reduced to begging for a spot in tournament fields after he lost his fully exempt status, that was another matter. The same unassuming man who stunned the world with his 2003 British Open triumph, Curtis said that was hard.
“You look back on it and say, ‘How am I not getting into any of these events?’?” Curtis said Tuesday afternoon, standing on the veranda overlooking the 18th green at Muirfield Village Golf Club where he will tee off today in the Memorial Tournament. “Tournament directors are put in a tough spot, 50 to 100 guys every week looking for spots. It’s not a fun thing and hopefully I don’t have to go through it again.”
The second-biggest breakthrough of his career came April 22 when he captured the Valero Texas Open, locking up his PGA Tour card for the next two years. It was Curtis’ fourth career victory, but his first since he captured the 84 Lumber Classic in 2006, when he also won the Booz Allen Classic.
Curtis, 35, got choked up during the interview with David Feherty of CBS.
“I was pretty emotional and Feherty came over,” Curtis said. “He’s a funny dude, but I don’t remember what he was saying. I was just so relieved and so happy.
“I knew I was playing well and knew something good was going to happen, I just didn’t know when. Golf is that way; it will come up and surprise you. I just didn’t think it would happen there so quickly with it only being April because I’m a summer guy.”
That was the start of a run of another sort for Curtis. Playing in four consecutive tournaments, his worst finish in that span was a tie for 13th the next week in the Zurich Classic in New Orleans.
He tied for fifth at the Wells Fargo in Charlotte, N.C., with former Browns quarterback Derek Anderson, now Cam Newton’s backup with the Carolina Panthers, walking with him for four rounds. He tied for second at the Players Championship, shooting 32 on the back nine in the final round. Eight birdies on Sunday enabled him to climb the leaderboard after a double-bogey at No. 8.
Going into the Memorial, Curtis has risen to 12th on the PGA Tour money list with earnings of more than $2 million, 19th in the FedExCup standings, seemingly assuring him of making the season-ending playoffs, and 75th in the world rankings.
He figures one more “decent” week will move him into the top 50 in the world and qualify him for the $8.5 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club Aug. 2-5.
He also has a chance to make his second Ryder Cup team. He stands 13th on the U.S. list, with the top eight qualifying, along with four captain’s picks.
“I’ve put myself in a great position to allow something good to happen,” Curtis said of the Ryder Cup. “But you can’t think about it, then you’re just adding more pressure you don’t need. Just play golf and let the results dictate where you stand.”
That was his approach in 2008, when a tie for second in the PGA Championship enabled him to play for the winning U.S. squad at Valhalla.
Curtis’ manner of working hard and staying patient that he learned from Kent State coach Herb Page seems to have earned the newly elected member of the Mid-American Conference Hall of Fame fans around the world.
On the PGA Tour’s web page congratulating him on his victory, messages came from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, Italy, Argentina and Alberta, Canada. Paul Taggart, presumably from England, said he wagered five pounds (the equivalent of $7.70) on Curtis “because I thought you were playing well” and won 216.25 pounds ($334.90). “Onwards and upwards,” Taggart added. “You can be great.”
Martin F. from Ireland wrote, “Comeback of the year. The rest of your career started today.”
On Tuesday, Curtis’ agent, Peter Malik, attributed the comeback of the year to a putting tip Curtis received from Page.
Page said by telephone Tuesday from the NCAA Tournament in Los Angeles that he watched a highlight tape of the 2003 British Open that he’d never seen before around the time of KSU’s Christmas break. He knew Curtis would be coming to the Golden Flashes’ golf center and had been struggling with his putting for two years.
“When you stop making putts you start looking and listening,” Page said. “When he was on the Ryder Cup team, Dave Stockton was in his quad. Dave Stockton is one of the greatest putters of all time, but he teaches it completely different than the way Herb Page teaches it. Ben listened to quite a few people.
“I looked at the highlight tape, saw some things and said, ‘OK, that’s something to go on there,’?” Page recalled. “We had a little chat … I wouldn’t really call it a chat.”
Page said he’d noticed problems even last fall, when Curtis was not releasing the putter in his usual arc. His head was falling back instead of remaining steady. Page convinced Curtis to change his putting grip, moving his hand more toward the center.
“He’s been harping on me for six or eight months to get that right hand more on top,” Curtis said. “It’s amazing. It’s a huge change. I’m still kind of messing with it to get comfortable with it. It’s made a huge difference to see the ball rolling and how it’s coming off the face.
“Herb always says ‘Work hard and good things happen,’ but you definitely have to work on the right things.”
In his victory, a 23-foot par-saving putt at No. 17 might have been the key. Curtis ranks first on the tour this week in strokes gained putting, a ShotLink-born statistic that measures putting efficiency from certain distances against the rest of the field.
With Curtis reduced to drilling with the KSU golf team, Page saw the putting changes and Curtis’ game come together a week before he went to San Antonio.
“I kidded him, ‘You’ve got a big problem. You need to get in a tournament.’ He said, ‘No kidding,’?” Page remembered.
Before the victory, Page said he never sensed Curtis was down. Page believes Curtis’ top priority is wife Candace and children Liam, 5, (whom Page joked he has an oral commitment from for the KSU class of 2023); and Addison, 4. Curtis said Candace’s attitude was “?‘Everything’s fine, don’t worry about it.’?”
Paul Taggart from the U.K. and Martin F. from Ireland aren’t the only fans enjoying Curtis’ recent resurgence.
“I watch that putter release and his head stay still, get those hands on the club right. Hallelujah!” Page said. “It’s very fun watching him get to the top again.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.