Back from Japan, Hamilton finds hope in Augusta

Augusta — Well, the filling-station operator from Mississippi didn’t make the cut, and he was on his way back to Ocean Springs. He’d had two giddy days paired with Tom Watson, his hero — of course — and the English bloke, Ian Poulter, and the patina would take a few days wearing off. On the radio, local broadcasters were wallowing in self-flagellation about what dastardly fate had befallen their idol, Tiger Woods.

And there would be no relief once the third round of the 75th Masters was underway. Woods double-bogeyed the first hole, then failed to birdie the second, a par-5 hole that usually surrenders more sub-par scores than any hole on the course.

Meanwhile, the unlikely subject of Todd Hamilton rose to the surface in the mind of this roving correspondent. Hamilton is a native of Illinois, now a resident of Texas, but for the better part of 12 years a campaigner on the Pacific Rim, and out of sight, out of mind. He simply wasn’t able to cut it on the PGA Tour, so he set out to the Orient and worked his way up through the Asian Tour into the Japan Tour, and there made his golfing home.

Not a few itinerant players have taken the same route, another American named Brian Watts for one. Watts became a folk hero in Japan and later lost the British Open in a playoff to Mark O’Meara. Over one stretch of 11 years, Hamilton won 11 tournaments, and after a season of four victories in 2003, decided it was time to take his game home. And he did, and he won the Honda Classic. Now we get to the meat of the story.

Qualified for the Britsh Open, he took his game to Royal Troon, and by dang, there he won it. Not with great ease. He had to beat Ernie Els in a playoff, but he was launched. The world was his oyster. Unfortunately, no pearl.

Todd Hamilton hasn’t won since. He has made a good living, but there was a time when he barely made a cut. There would be no return to Japan, but just how long could this go on?

“I would have some really good finishes,” he said. “But it seemed like I was always finishing between 25th and 40th for seven or eight weeks.”

How could this happen to a player good enough to beat the best in the world and win the British Open? Where did it all go? This year hasn’t given him anything to build on. Twice in the money in nine tournaments for about $35,000 in winnings.

“I hadn’t played all that well, and I didn’t have any expectations coming here,” he said. “I was just happy to have one more chance, knowing that this could be my last one. I didn’t touch a club for four days, and maybe that was a good thing.”

So on this Saturday afternoon, in the third round of the great Masters — which could have been his last — here was Todd Hamilton in the next-to-last pairing (with Angel Cabrera of Argentina). Rarely ever on camera. Out of any chance of leaving here with a green jacket, but with a golf game breathing new life again. Maybe it isn’t over yet.

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