x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hamilton longs to ride straight again

Todd Hamilton rose without a trace to become Open champion and sank without a ripple in returning to the anonymous depths from whence he came.

Todd Hamilton rose without a trace to become Open champion and sank without a ripple in returning to the anonymous depths from whence he came. While Tiger, Ernie and Phil Mick have been chasing big bucks in the latest World Golf Championship event, Hamilton missed the cut in the Puerto Rico Open, the sixth time in seven tournaments this year that he has failed to survive beyond Friday.

Life was all so different back at Royal Troon in 2004 when the great unknown - one newspaper in his native America even referred to him as "Scott" Hamilton (perhaps confused by the former Olympic ice skater of the same name) - beat Els over a four-hole play-off to take possession of the old Claret Jug. Now ranked 357th in the world and dropping fast, Hamilton remains hopeful that he will eventually regain the balance of five seasons ago.

"Playing golf is like riding a bike," he says. "You may not ride it very straight or very smooth but you know how to ride it. And when you figure it out, it usually straightens up." They still love him back home in Illinois, of course, where visitors to this tiny outpost on the banks of the Mississippi (population: 1,359) are greeted by the sign: "Oquawka - birthplace of 2004 British Open golf champion Todd Hamilton."

This was where Hamilton's brief flirtation with greatness began when his father Kent - who owns Hamilton's Super Market in Main Street - presented his son with a set of cut-down clubs. "His mother sank empty coffee cans in the back yard for 'holes' - using old coat-hangers with numbers attached as 'flag-sticks' - and Todd would play there for hours," recalls pop. "That course was the best babysitter we ever had."

Likeable that he is, Hamilton reflects on a roller-coaster career that saw him spend 17 years trying to win his US Tour card while commuting to Japan, Thailand and Malaysia to earn a living on the Asian circuit before achieving sporting immortality at Troon with engaging equanimity. "It probably seemed like a fairytale to most people and, to me, it really was a fairytale. Being Open champion was cool because I got to do things like throw the opening pitch at a New York Mets baseball game in Shea Stadium. I've seen the other side of golf on the Asian Tour and suddenly I was being showered with courtesy cars, complimentary tickets to big sports events, free dry cleaning. I know which one is better. But the years I spent based in Japan represented a great learning curve, teaching me not only how to win golf tournaments but also a lot about patience. To be honest, I'm kind of glad I was 39 when I won the Open because being that bit more mature helped me appreciate everything."

He may have been transmogrified into a global superstar overnight, but Hamilton remained the same homespun lad of old, unfailingly courteous, modest, friendly and genuinely thrilled by his new-found fame. "I don't hit the ball as well as a lot of well-known players. I play what I call 'ugly golf', a lot of fades off the tee to keep the ball in play, a lot of punch shots, but my chipping and putting allows me to be competitive."

Although he is frequently compared to Lee Trevino in style, Hamilton insists: "There are probably a lot of other golfers who, talent-wise, deserved it more than I did, but no one could have appreciate it more. It's been a blast, and to be Open champion is very special. Winning is addictive. It doesn't matter where you win - Asia or the British Open - it's getting used to the feeling of winning that's important."

Here is one addict whom none of us would deny a 'fix'. rphilip@thenational.ae