Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Ohio welcomes Curtis home from British win

Reception overwhelms 'Big Ben'

The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Clutching the silver British Open championship trophy he won the day before, Ben Curtis returned home Monday to tears, applause and signs proclaiming him "Big Ben."

Curtis, surrounded by television and newspaper cameras, visited with friends and family at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. About two-dozen people had waited for his arrival from London.

"This is awesome," said Curtis, 26, who appeared overwhelmed by the number of well-wishers at the airport baggage claim.

On Sunday, Curtis became the first player since 1913 to win a major golf championship on his first try.

With his fiancee, Candace Beatty, by his side, he said he realizes his life won't be the same after unexpectedly winning the tournament.

On the flight home, Curtis upgraded his coach seats to first class and was constantly asked for autographs. He said he spent Sunday night talking business with his agent.

But when asked how money would change him, Curtis promised: "It's not going to change me; I'll be cheap as always."

Curtis said he was to fly to New York on Monday night to make an appearance on NBC's Today show and possibly other talk shows.

Family and friends wearing freshly printed T-shirts that read "Big Ben" were excited to see Curtis. "I'm very proud," said Doug Joseph, Curtis' high school coach. "It couldn't have happened to a better kid."

Joseph, who coached Curtis from 1992-96 at Buckeye Valley High School in central Ohio, and some of the other supporters at the airport held up signs. Joseph's poster said, "Mill Creek: Home of the 2003 British Open Champion," referring to the Curtis family's golf course in Ostrander.

Larry Mosca drove from Curtis' home in Kent, about 28 miles southeast of Cleveland, with friends and family of the golfer's fiancee. "It's amazing. It's a wonderful thing," Mosca said while clutching a "Big Ben No. 1" poster.

Beatty's mother, Diane, wore one of the T-shifts with Curtis' color photograph on the front. The family was looking forward to celebrating the championship and the upcoming wedding, she said.

"It's going to be two special occasions," she said. "I'm amazed. I guess I'm in awe. I knew he could do it. It was just a matter of time."

Grizzled pros and aspiring amateurs playing Monday in the Ohio Open in Canton let their minds wander to what it would be like to be Curtis, who not so long ago was just another touring pro like many of them. Curtis, a two-time Ohio Amateur champion, finished runner-up in last year's Ohio Open.

"We grew up in the same area and played a lot of golf growing up," said Tim Ailes, an Ohio Open entrant. "I watched him yesterday and he's the same guy I remember: very quiet, dedicated. What a great story this is. I'm just so happy for him. I think all of America is."

Herb Page, Curtis' golf coach at Kent State, watched the final few holes Sunday from a golf course in Charleston, S.C. "My stomach was in knots," he said.

Page always suspected Curtis might end up with the claret jug, given to the British Open winner.

"I told people five or six weeks ago - for that matter, I told them five or six years ago - that Ben is a champion," Page said as he traveled to greet Curtis at the airport. "I didn't doubt he could win. As the courses get tougher, he has the game to succeed."

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