SOUTHPORT, England – As Ben Curtis stood with hands on hips and face creased in frustration on Thursday morning, it looked as if he would become the first victim of a brutal British Open.
The harsh opening day conditions took their toll on the 2003 champion immediately, as he recorded a triple-bogey on the first and a double on the second. In a tournament where building momentum and sustaining it has become paramount, Curtis looked doomed – even at such an early stage.
By Saturday night though, the 31-year-old from Ohio had engineered a stunning revival, carding a tremendous even-par round of 70 on Day 3 at Royal Birkdale.
And as a blustery afternoon swept the dreams of dozens of contenders out into the Irish Sea, the struggles of others meant Curtis came surging up the leaderboard while in the safety of the clubhouse.
In 2003, Curtis emerged from Royal St George's with the claret jug after a wildly unpredictable tournament that saw Tiger Woods lose his ball on the opening hole and Thomas Bjorn lose his nerve with victory in sight.
Back then, Curtis scraped into the Open thanks to a 13th place finish in the Western Open two weeks earlier. Ranked 396th in the world, he stayed in budget accommodations and was at the time without a coach or full-time caddie, or, to all outward appearances, any hope of contending in his first Major. However, he carded a wonderful 69 on the final day and sat back nervously while the field, one by one, failed to better his tally.
Yesterday was similar in many ways. As he completed his round, Curtis was hovering around the 20th spot on the leaderboard, but even then, was confident his round would be enough to ensure he started Day 4 knocking on the door of the top five.
"Par out there was anywhere from the mid to high 70s," he said. "You can deal with the wind until it gets to a certain point of how strong it is. Today it went over the edge."
But while many were tipped over the edge, Curtis clung on and grew in confidence as his round progressed.
Holing out with an approach shot for eagle on the third hole was a major psychological boost and a welcome slice of fortune, but the rest of the day's work was built around hard graft.
"It was really just about staying patient," he added. "It is tough out there and you have just got to hang on for dear life.
"I dream about winning the Open championship again. If I could choose another Major to win, this would be the one."
Curtis struggled for a couple of years following his Open success but has since become a solid presence on Tour, having won twice in 2006 and finishing second in this year's Wachovia Championship. His game and his nerve have earned him the respect of his rivals and none of the contenders will want to see his name creeping up the leaderboard behind them on Sunday.
"I am just going to let the weather and the conditions play, and see how I stand," said Curtis. "Most likely I will be in the top five or 10 anyway, so it is going to be fun to go out tomorrow and see what can happen."
Curtis knows better than anyone in the field that at this tournament, with tough conditions, anything can happen.
Five years ago it did, to him.