Open Champion Ben Curtis learned the game at family-owned Mill Creek Golf Club
OSTRANDER, Ohio -- On most Sunday mornings at Mill Creek Golf Club outside Columbus, golfers go about their business of finishing their rounds. But on this Sunday morning things were different, very different.
Golfers had left the course and had rushed into the modest clubhouse to watch TV. The word had spread that 26-year old Ben Curtis - hometown boy, son of the course superintendent, grandson of the course owner - was flirting with the lead in the final round of the British Open at Royal St. George's. No one wanted to miss what would turn out to be one of the most improbable and magical wins in golf history.
Ben Curtis - the young boy who learned the game on what was once his grandfather's farm and collected greens fees in the pro shop as a high school kid - finished the championship at 1-under and waited at the scorer's hut and the practice range to see what would happen as one-time leader Thomas Bjorn made his way down the 18th fairway.
On the other side of the world, at the Mill Creek the clubhouse, the crowd had swelled to more than 100 people surrounding the course's only television set. The silence was deafening and the tension palpable as they watched Bjorn over his chip shot. If he made it, it would mean a playoff with Ben, the PGA Tour rookie. The shot looked pretty solid, but the ball failed to fall in the hole turning the Mill Creek clubhouse upside down. The screams of joy and elation rippled across Mill Creek as friends and family embraced and cheered for their hometown hero - Ben Curtis, 2003 Open Champion.
Mill Creek is what one would expect from a course built on the land that was once the farm of Ben's grandfather. Nothing fancy, just a back to the basics kind of place.
Mill Creek opened in 1973 and built in the era of the family-owned course. These were typically pleasant places where family members milled about, greeted you, joked with you and generally made you feel welcome. Large corporations can build monster golf courses that earn national attention, but you can't just buy an atmosphere where players feel like guests invited to someone's home for the day.
Mill Creek has that kind of feeling. Before starting your round, chat with the staff in the pro shop/coffee shop/clubhouse. Ask about the course. Ask if there are tricky spots to avoid. And listen carefully when someone tells you to watch out for No. 17. "Drop back in and tell me if you make par there," they'll say to you. Their eyes will twinkle knowingly, much like an uncle pulling a practical joke.
The 17th is actually a symbolic hole for Mill Creek. It encompasses everything this course offers in the way of defense to today's arsenal of modern technology. It's just 160 yards from the white tees, but your tee shot must carry through -- or less likely, over -- a tunnel of trees for the first 100 yards. The shot is uphill, and the green is elevated above the fairway as well.
The green is hard, quick and sloped from back to front - so much so that if you miss the green either left or long, you can't stop your pitch on the green. Any shot from those areas will trickle tantalizingly toward the middle of the green, then to your horror pick up speed until seemingly dropping off the face of the Earth - that is, the front of the green. Mill Creek has held up well as a challenge to golfers of all skill levels.
The length of the course (6,300 yards) makes it attractive to seniors, women and juniors, but the hard and fast greens and the tight fairways offer problems for even the most ambitious amateur golfer.
The scorecard paints a picture of a course that's just run of the mill: a rating of 69.0 and a slope of 116 from the blue tees. But this is not a course where you can just bang your driver and flip sand wedges all day. The subtle and tricky design is enough to make you stop and think about the proper way to play each hole.
Take Mill Creek Golf Club's par-5 12th hole, for example. It's 505 yards from the blue tees and 485 from the whites. The hole doglegs sharply left around a water hazard about 250 yards from the tee, but a big hitter can't just smack a driver past the trouble. That's because the fairway turns left at a 90 degree angle, and a well-struck driver will send the ball careening through the fairway and behind a cluster of trees.
But you're not out of the woods after the 12th hole -- OK, you are for a few holes, but it's just an expression. The trouble continues at 13, a 150-yard par-3 from the whites that's more difficult than it looks.
The tee shot looks simple. The green is huge, and the pin seems like it's much closer to you than the yardage listed on the scorecard. But water lurks in front of the green, then wraps around it to the left and sneaks behind, blind from the tee. Still, there's a lot of green to work with. What could be hard about this shot?
Well, if the wind is from the right - the west to those of you who know how to read a compass and care about these sorts of things - it blows your ball toward the water. You can compensate for this by aiming to the right, but there's out-of-bounds over there because of the driving range. You have to aim for the center of the green and hope your shot has enough spunk to fight off the wind's pushy nature.
Soon to be Famous
In a lot of ways, Mill Creek seems like your average, run-of-the-mill course. At first glance, it's reminiscent of Bolton Field Golf Course southwest of Columbus. But it's a tougher test of golf than most courses of this length. The trees encroach on your sanctity, the greens are hard enough to be called brutal, and water laps at six of the greens like a thirsty dog. But more importantly, there will be someone who cares what you shot at the end of the round. That's right, someone will ask. And be sure to say hello to Bob Curtis, the course superintendent. He's the one who keeps the place looking sharp and whose job will intensify as more people come to see the course where the Open Champion learned to play. How will you find Bob? He's the one with the perpetual smile on the face. You'd smile too if your son won the Open.
July 20, 2003