How did Curtis do it?
He didn't know any better
SANDWICH, England -- When Ben Curtis arrived at Royal St. George's on the Saturday before the British Open, he had never finished in the top 10 of a PGA Tour event. He had never played in a major championship. He was ranked 396th in the world, presumably just behind Ray Romano. Curtis had played only one other links tournament in his life, and that was three years ago in Germany, which is as well known for links golf as England is for wienerschnitzel.

Ben Curtis
Playing in his second event on a links course and in front of bigger galleries than he'd ever seen, Ben Curtis came out on top.

When he left Royal St. George's on Sunday night, Ben Curtis, 26, of Kent, Ohio, carried with him the Claret Jug. He is, as they introduced him at the 18th green Sunday evening, the champion golfer of the year.

With players such as Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III and Thomas Bjorn on the leaderboard, the final round of the 132nd Open Championship promised a great finish. What it delivered defied belief. With a final-round 69, Curtis posted a 72-hole score of 283, 1-under par, then watched as the deities of the game failed to match it. None of them failed as spectacularly as Bjorn, the two-time Ryder Cupper from Denmark, who blew a three-stroke lead in the final four holes.

"Right now many people are probably saying, 'Well, he doesn't really belong there,'" Curtis said. "But I know I do, so that's all that matters."

Curtis did something that not even John Daly could claim when he rocketed out of obscurity to win the 1991 PGA Championship. Curtis is believed to be the first player to win the first major championship in which he played since Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open in 1913.

Ouimet's victory over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray put American golf on the map. The finish of the Open Championship on Sunday may have set golf back several decades. Or it may have proven again, in even more stark fashion, that there's no pressure as excruciating as the final nine of the world's oldest golf championship.

That pressure was ratcheted up by the difficulties presented by the golf course, which has been the site for 13 Open Championships. Tom Watson, 53, won this tournament five times. On Sunday, he enjoyed his best finish in four Opens at Royal St. George's -- tied for 18th.

"When I come back from Sandwich," Watson said, "I feel like I can't play a lick."

The way to play Royal St. George's became clear as the tournament went on -- make your birdies on the front side, then hang on for dear life on the back, when the wind, the sun-baked, undulating fairways and the firm greens conspire to make par feel like a victory.

First-timers
Ben Curtis became the sixth player since 1900 to win the British Open in his first appearance, and the first since Tom Watson.
Player Margin
'03 Ben Curtis 1
'75 Tom Watson 1*
'64 Tony Lema 5
'53 Ben Hogan 4
'33 D. Shute 5*
'21 Jock Hutchison 9*
*-won in playoff

No one did that better on Sunday than Curtis, who birdied six of the first 11 holes, making no putt longer than 15 feet.

"I told my wife Saturday, 'This guy can play,'" Singh said. "He's no pushover. He's got a very good short game, a great putter and he keeps the ball in play. That's what he did today."

Curtis played well because he was too na´ve to know Royal St. George's is hard. He had reached 5-under when he discovered he led the Open Championship by two strokes. "I was shaking in my boots, obviously," Curtis said. "But I was just out there very focused on what I had to do and let my work speak for itself."

Everyone, including Woods, who missed five putts inside of 15 feet on the last 11 holes, backed up on Sunday. But Curtis had given himself the most space. After making four bogeys in five holes, Curtis steadied himself by making an eight-foot par putt on the 18th. That putt proved to be his margin over Singh, and, most sadly, Bjorn.

"I stood on the 15th tee with one hand on that trophy," Bjorn said, "and I let it go."

Bjorn lost this Open Championship in the deep bunkers of Royal St. George's, where he gave the worst performance on sand since "Spring Break: The Real Cancun". On Thursday, Bjorn made a quadruple bogey 8 at No. 17, when he left his fourth shot in the bunker, then hit the sand with his wedge, earning a two-stroke penalty.

Afterward, Bjorn said he hadn't left a shot in a bunker in 10 years. It took him only three days to do it again, this time on Sunday at the par 3 16th. He had just bogeyed No. 15, but still had a two-stroke edge on Curtis.

Bjorn's tee shot, in typical Royal St. George's fashion, made a brief appearance on the right edge of the green before it caught a ridge and ran headlong into the yawning maw of the bunker. Bjorn's bunker shot came out high, landed on the upslope of the green, ran out of gas, and rolled back to Bjorn's feet.

Ten years, three days, and then, less than a minute. Bjorn didn't take much time over his third shot, and it showed. He hit an exact replica of his second. Bjorn looked down at the ball as if it had landed from outer space. He got up-and-down for double-bogey, which dropped him into a tie with Curtis. When he missed a five-foot par putt at No. 17, Bjorn entered the gallery of agonizing Open losses.

He joins Jean Van de Velde, who triple-bogeyed the 72nd hole at Carnoustie in 1999 and lost in a playoff, the then-little-known Nick Price at Royal Troon in 1982, and Doug Sanders, who missed a three-foot putt at the final hole at St. Andrews in 1970 and lost to Jack Nicklaus.

"A lot of good players have lost big championships," Bjorn said. "If you get close time after time, you're going to win one."

Curtis isn't exactly proof of that. His British Open winnings of $1,112,720 (700,000 pounds) are more than five times what he had earned in his PGA Tour career. With his victory comes an exemption into the Open Championship until he's 65, and five years of free tickets to The Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, and maybe some nicer flower arrangements at his August 23rd wedding to Candace Beatty, who traveled here with him.

They didn't see each other after the tournament until Curtis left the range, with escort, and made his way to the 18th green. They embraced, lifted their heads to kiss, spoke quietly, then erupted into can-you-believe-it laughter.

A short time later, Curtis accepted the most famous trophy in golf with his name already inscribed. Before Sunday, Ben Curtis wasn't even the most famous Ben Curtis. That honor went to the young actor who became a phenomenon in the Dell computer ads last year.

Dude, you're getting a Claret Jug.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.