The Open: Thomas Curtis relishing his big chance at Carnoustie
THE magnitude of the occasion had been steadily dawning on Harrogate's Thomas Curtis until a moment on Tuesday afternoon when it slapped him across the face.
“I was on the putting green, minding my own business,” begins the 33-year-old professional, “When my caddie looked at me and said: ‘he’s here’.
“I didn’t need to turn around. I knew exactly who he meant because he has this aura about him. It was Tiger Woods. He came over to practice his putting and he was five feet away from me. For me, having grown up with him as my idol, that was amazing.”
The beauty of an Open Championship is that for the briefest of moments it makes equals of people who exist in different stratospheres.
Woods is the most recognisable face in golf, even now, 10 years after his 14th major championship victory and three years after his last appearance at the Open.
Curtis can walk into the pro shop at his local club, Pannal, and not be noticed. Yet there they were on Tuesday, sharing the same strip of putting green in preparation for the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie.
“I’ve been playing golf a long time, and everyone always asks have you ever played in a tournament with Tiger Woods, and they can’t understand when I say that I haven’t,” continues Curtis.
“Now I’ll be able to say that I have. When I got confirmation through that I was actually playing in the Open his was the first name I looked for, after my own of course.”
That he tees it up at Carnoustie alongside Woods, Rory McIlroy and the world’s best owes much to the two rounds he put together at final qualifying at the Renaissance Club at North Berwick earlier this month, and everything to the perseverance he has shown over the last decade and a half.
Curtis’s route to an Open debut has not been straightforward. A late bloomer to golf – “I only started when I was 16 because I loved football, rugby and cricket” – he has never played on either of the major tours nor held a card long enough on minor circuits to make an impact. A two-year spell on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour in 2010-11 is the longest he has held down a regular place.
He moved to America shortly afterwards to try to make it out there but ended up having to sign up for the Latin American Tour.
Even then, the birth of his first child and the decision to move house in Florida curtailed his participation. He barely played in 2016 due to a bout of meningitis and the arrival of his second child.
Curtis has been going to Open qualifying sporadically since 2007 without much success, and has come close to earning a card on the main tours a handful of times without ever getting close enough.
Indeed, his biggest claim to fame gets him in most trouble at home. On his honeymoon in Bermuda in 2015 he snook off to play in the world par-three challenge and won it.
“She hasn’t quite forgiven me yet,” is the line he routinely trots out, though the winner’s cheque of $20,000 probably went some way to smoothing things over.
Curtis and his young family moved back to Harrogate in April. The good weather has helped with his practice back at Pannal and heading towards his mid-30s, a place in the Open Championship at long last has given him either the springboard for the second stage of his career or a lifetime highlight he will never forget.
“I’m not out here feeling as though I have anything to prove – I am at the Open after all,” says Curtis.
“At my level, you can hit all the shots that 99 per cent of players can hit, but it’s just that feeling that you’re comfortable in that company which you’re missing.
“For me this week, I’m just going to go out and enjoy the experience. Everyone I’ve asked has given me that advice. I’m just going to go out and try and hit a few nice shots.”
He will do so today in the last group out onto the course at 4.16pm in the company of Australia’s Matt Jones and rising American star Bronson Burgoon.
By the time they finish at around 9.30pm there will be just a handful of close family and friends from Harrogate in attendance and the sound of the catering vans packing up to accompany him as he walks up the 18th.
After that he will retire to the house he and his young family have rented to rest up, reflect and prepare to do it all over again at 11.15am the following day.
“I don’t think the reality will kick in until I’m heading towards the tee on that first day,” he says. “Each day the experience becomes a little bit more normal. And what a tremendous experience.”