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Old School

In a tiny expatriate bar called motown in Tokyo's Roppongi district, one of the world's most unusual trophy collections stands on a high shelf, gathering dust. It consists of about thirty empty bottles of Dom Perignon. Each is inscribed in black felt-tip marker with a date (almost always a Sunday), the name of a golf tournament and the signature of the player whose success in the tourney obliged him to buy the Dom with which his pals toasted him, often into the wee hours of Monday morning.

With eleven wins in Japan between 1992 and 2003, Todd Hamilton paid for and helped drain a good number of those bottles. Each commemorates a victory, or a feat such as a hole in one, achieved by an informal band of brothers: English speakers from North and South America, New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines who have played in the relative purgatory of the Japan Pro Tour.

When the champagne shrine got started, in 1996, Hamilton was not yet the unheralded guy who last year, at age thirty-eight, won two tournaments in his rookie season on the PGA Tour. He was not yet the unheralded guy who won the Open Championship at Royal Troon by outdueling Ernie Els in a playoff. ("Major Shocker! Hamilton Wins Open" declared thegolfchannel.com.) He was just an unheralded guy from Oquawka, Illinois, who had lugged his bag to India, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, places where the weather is sweltering, the travel arduous and the reception sometimes surprisingly cool.

Now, of course, Hamilton has a new way to drink champagne: from the Claret Jug. And in defending that cup at St. Andrews in July, he will draw on the skills and experiences from his long career in Asia that make him an anomaly among golf's top players. Having come of age as a professional not in the cosseted confines of the PGA Tour, or even on the relatively swank European or Nationwide Tours, but on the road in Asia, fending for himself, Hamilton learned to win tournaments in a way that harkens back to the pros of yesteryear. He has no swing coach, no sports psychologist, no personal trainer. He doesn't work out. He doesn't even stretch. "Old school" is how his friend and fellow Asian Tour alum Brandt Jobe describes him. What Hamilton does have is a deep, hard-won knowledge of his golf game and of himself. He admits that he's a streaky player. When things go wrong with his swing he needs time to put the pieces back together. "I'm probably not as talented as a lot of the golfers out here," he explains over lunch at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club in Orlando. Hamilton speaks in an open, unhurried manner, less than steely, but deliberate, like his swing. "My swing isn't textbook—it's too upright. But put me in a position to win, and I enjoy the chase. I'm not afraid to come to the last hole knowing I need to hit the fairway."

Hamilton proved as much last year, after he finally made it through Q-school on his eighth try. He showed his mettle early in the season by edging Davis Love III by one stroke to take the Honda Classic. But he was still "Todd Who?" when he arrived at Royal Troon, and that was fine with him: "I like to go in unannounced and under the radar."

Leading on Sunday, Hamilton fell into a two-man playoff with Els after making bogey on eighteen. (Els narrowly missed a birdie there that would have won it.) "I heard a lot of cheers for Ernie Els coming down the last nine holes," Hamilton recalls. "I didn't hear too much 'Go Todd!' or 'Go Hammy!' But I think my years in Asia and Japan toughened me up. I've got no problem with thousands of people at the British Open rooting for someone else. I'm used to whole countries not rooting for me."

He was not at all rattled, therefore, on the first of the four playoff holes, when the public-address announcer informed the galleries that both players had driven in the fairway but that Els was eighty yards past Hamilton. What the announcer left out was that Hamilton, playing conservatively, had hit four-iron to Els's driver.

"I'm sure the announcer didn't mean it," Hamilton says, "but it came across like, 'Well, Els has outdriven him again and Hamilton has no chance.' It gave me an extra buzz."

Todd Who proceeded to par all four holes, while Els bogeyed the third. The American's defining moment came on the last hole, when he executed a perfect chip-and-run to two feet with his hybrid club (see below).

After fifteen years as a pro, the man who likes to fly under the radar was smack dab on the screen, making a very big blip. Suddenly people were handing him things to sign, seeking his opinion and calling him at home until he had to change his number. Some of the attention, he says, "was neat for a while. I threw out the first pitch at a Mets game, I went on the Leno show, I got to read David Letterman's Top Ten list." (The list was called "Top Ten Perks of Winning the British Open." Example: "President Bush called me—he kept calling me Ernie, but it was still nice.")

But when, to Hamilton's relief, the media bandwagon finally moved on, he found himself saddled with something he was not used to: heightened expectations. "I don't think anyone expected I could win a major in my rookie season on the PGA Tour," he admits. "I would be one of those guys who wouldn't have expected it. I probably overachieved last year. Now people expect me to do well. I'm one of those people. That might be part of why I haven't had much success since last July. I put a lot of pressure on myself. It seems like I'm trying to hit every shot perfect."

The statistics bear this out. In twenty-one events between the British Open and mid-May, Hamilton had only one top-ten finish. Finding a way to play with no expectations, which was the key to his two previous breakthrough years, in 1992 and 2003, may be the biggest challenge Hamilton faces.

Crunch. crunch. crunch. That is something you don't hear much anymore, even on the PGA Tour. It's the sound Hamilton's metal spikes make when they hit the cart path. There's something aggressive and inexorable about the beat of metal spikes on pavement, especially when they're coming up behind you.


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