A spectecular eagle in gale-force conditions lifted Ben Curtis on his way to the clubhouse lead in Saturday's third round of the British Open at Royal Birkdale.
American Curtis, the surprise champion at Royal St George's in 2003, carded a level-par 70 to post a seven-over total of 217 on a day when the entire field was battling for survival. The 31-year-old holed out with a magical nine-iron approach from 165 yards on the par-four third to give himself a glimmer of a chance of lifting the Claret Jug for a second time.
“I heeled it (the ball) a little bit and thought it was going right, into the greenside bunker,” Curtis told reporters after a round that also featured two birdies and four bogeys. “Luckily it held its line and I thought it might be all right — but when we walked forward they (the spectators) were going crazy.”
His fortunate shot gave him one hole where he would not need a putter, an advantage on a wind-blown day when several balls were oscillating on the greens. “In those conditions, the putting gives you the most problems,” Curtis said. “You've got to pull the trigger pretty quickly when you've decided your line because the ball can roll back and even hit your feet.
“The wind holds your putter back and really jerks it when you're going through. You just have to try and keep a good, steady pace.” While Curtis assessed the conditions as “probably about as tough as you can play”, he did not rate his round as highly as the one that earned him his maiden victory five years ago.
“As far as dealing with everything, there isn't much that can better that,” he added, referring to his closing 69 at Royal St George’s.
“I’d obviously like to do it again. Back then I just wanted to have fun and I've always tried to do that again. I'm a better player now. If I get hot, I can win any week.” American world number two Phil Mickelson, who played with Curtis in the third round, applauded his compatriot's display.
“Ben's round was incredible,” Mickelson said after returning a 76 to trail Curtis by six strokes. “He hit a lot of great shots, a lot of great putts and shot even par in this weather. It's one of the better rounds I've seen.”