July 20, 2004,
If you're the script writer for the British Open and yes, only a script writer could come up with the story lines produced each year by the world's oldest golf tournament then you knew before this Open Championship at Troon that you must come up with something pretty darn special to top your efforts of the past few years.
Every year the Open either crowns or confirms a player already mentioned among the world's best or potential best, or else it contrives a champion so outlandish (last year's young Ben Curtis, ranked 396th in the world entering the tournament) that jaws drop in wonder. The only exceptions are great stories in themselves, such as the local-boy-makes-good story from 1999 when Scotsman Paul Lawrie won at Carnoustie; but even then, the only way that story was entertaining enough was for the script writer to conjure up an obscure Frenchman to hand the title to Lawrie with one of the world's weirdest triple-bogeys ever on the closing hole.
Balls lost directly in front of grandstands peopled by thousands, players signing the wrong scorecards, Greg Norman driving the ball too well so that it scoots into an supposedly undriveable bunker, amateurs holing impossible shots from the rough and over bunkers on the tourney's final hole: Such bizarre twists always mark the Open Championship before the greats like Els or Woods, Palmer or Player takes home the Claret Jug.
So this year the obvious script would put the world's top seven players Woods, Els, Singh, Mickelson, Love, Goosen, and Weir all within striking distance of the lead halfway through the tournament. Sprinkle in your local-boy-makes-good: the once-feared Colin Montgomerie, who grew up on these very links of Troon and who now, after all these years, has become a sympathetic figure as his estranged wife canoodles in public with actor Hugh Grant.
Throw in your usual assortment of European journeymen, like former Ryder Cup player Barry Lane now well on the downside of his career or like Frenchman Thomas Levet riding a hot streak. Any dolt can tell their stories aren't compelling enough for the script writer to pencil them in for the Claret Jug, but their type always must be in the mix. So too with a Scott Verplank or a Lee Westwood, the types who for years are mentioned among the world's near-bests, but who so far haven't won a professional major tournament.
Obviously, if you do your job well, you'll have the last few holes come down to a battle that includes the year's two most compelling stories, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, as they thrust and parry for clear supremacy as champion golfer of 2004.
But then you get writer's block. You've done all this before. You've done the "great-players-battle-it-out-as-the-sea-wind-blows-over-the-heather-and-gorse" thing. (See Nicklaus vs. Watson at Turnberry, Nicklaus vs. Trevino at Muirfield, Watson vs. Ballesteros at St. Andrew's.) And Monty's out, because you did the local-boy-makes-good thing just five years ago. And last year's Ben Curtis thing only worked because it was so improbable. You sort of like surprising the fans with somebody they're not familiar with, but if you take another Curtis, with literally no professional career accomplishments, you would make a mockery of the Open Championship's claim to identify the world's champion golfer.
But you're a clever writer, yes you are. The trick is to find somebody almost as unknown as Ben Curtis was, but this time with a pedigree that should have yelled "CHAMPION-IN-THE-MAKING" if only the game's supposed cognoscenti had really paid attention.
So you take Mickelson and Els, both playing at the awesome best, and you then throw in a third character for the final stretch run. Give him eleven professional tournament titles through 2003, including four last year alone by any measure, a superb career but put all those victories on the Japanese tour that is obscure to American fans. Have him be an American an American always wins at Troon, which really ought to rule out South African Ernie Els but, in a weird twist, make him 0-for-7 in attempts to even qualify for the American tour.
Give this character a 16-year pro career scraping around the globe while his wife his sweetheart since freshman year of high school keeps the home fires burning. Give him a swing that's unorthodox but, in its own way, theoretically sound a swing that happens to keep the ball low, which is exactly what is needed to cut through a linksland wind.
And then, finally, let him qualify at long last for the American tour in 2004. Let him prove his bona fides with a big win in Florida earned through birdies on the last two holes as mega-star Davis Love III waits in the clubhouse thinking the victory is his own. But with this guy from small-town Illinois, this player who grew up on a nine-hole golf course because there were no 18-hole courses around, don't let him make quite enough of a mark yet this year that the average fan recognizes him.
In other words, give him a career worthy of a Verplank or a Westwood, clearly good enough that he should have seemed on the verge of a major title. But give him a corny small-town, midwestern-American background and a profile as unknown as Curtis.
And then take this perfectly created character, this Todd Hamilton a quintessential American name and have him continue hitting good shot after good shot as Mickelson and Els work all their usual magic. Els makes par from three feet up in a gorse bush? Els then birdies the 13th hole? No problem: Just have Hamilton chip in from off the green for birdie at 14
Mickelson makes two 20-foot par putts on successive holes? Then Mickelson birdies 16 and saves two more good pars coming in? No problem: Have Hamilton birdie 16 as well.
Mickelson one stroke short a familiar spot. Els in a playoff for a major title another familiar spot. And then Hamilton, in the playoff with Els: unflappable, seemingly nerveless, safe, straight, and solid.
Then, finally, Mr. Scriptwriter, you have the superstar Els blink first. That's the final twist, the one nobody expected. Have Els make a bogey while Hamilton makes a par. And have Hamilton par again on 18 while Els's birdie putt for a tie slips less than one inch low of the cup.
And then have Todd Hamilton, the official Champion Golfer of the Year, give an almost perfect victory speech, gracious and polite, again proving that the caricature of the "Ugly American" is a myth.
Yeah, that's good. That's exactly the script you want.
Now, do you think anybody will actually buy it?
Quin Hillyer is an editorial writer and columnist for the Mobile Register. He wrote previously for NRO on the British Open here.