Sponsor has big plans for 'Big Ben'

By CONNIE MABIN, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Sponsors already have big plans for "Big Ben."

The president of Taiwanese tire maker Kenda was among the two dozen folks who gathered at the airport Monday to welcome Ben Curtis, the newest and most improbable British Open champion, home with signs and cheers.

The company, which has sponsored Curtis since 2000, plans to sell reproductions of the orange logo golf shirt he wore Sunday while becoming the first golfer since 1913 to win a major championship on his first try.

Kenda, which sent employees to pass out black and red caps at Curtis' homecoming, also wants to make and sell Curtis posters and introduce the new champ to clients around the world.

"We never knew this would come so quickly. It's almost like hitting the jackpot," company president Jim Yang said.

As for Curtis, the Ostrander, Ohio, native said he spent the night of his victory talking business with his agent over pizza and drinks, but hasn't made any major decisions.

"That stuff will take a little time," Curtis said.

He acknowledged the $1.1 million prize will open doors for himself and his soon-to-be wife who just bought a house near a golf course in Stow, about 35 miles southeast of Cleveland.

But Curtis (pictured holding the Claret Jug, above) promised to stay the same.

"It's not going to change me, I'll be cheap as always," he said.

Others tried to seize on Curtis' newfound fame.

Inside the pro shop at the Kent State golf course, employee Tony Stronz offered to sell a golf ball he claimed had been used by Curtis, who attended the university.

"I think everybody in the area was excited about it," Stronz said. "A local kid makes good."

Cleveland Hopkins International Airport became home to a Curtis pep rally when he returned from London.

"I'm very proud," said Doug Joseph, Curtis' high school golf 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, was on vacation in South Carolina when Curtis won the Open. He monitored the tournament on his cell phone's Internet connection.

At the baggage claim gathering, Curtis clutched the silver British Open championship trophy, known as the Claret Jug, signed golf balls and spoke with reporters.

Friends and family applauded, hoisted signs and wore T-shirts proclaiming him "Big Ben."

With his fiancee Candace Beatty by his side, Curtis said he realizes that 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.

The couple appeared on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday. Curtis also plans to meet with his agent to figure out what tournaments to play in.

Besides potential endorsements, Sunday's win grants Curtis a five-year exemption on the PGA tour beginning next season, a 10-year exemption to the British Open and five year exemptions to the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship.

At the airport, Beatty's mother, Diane, wore one of the T-shirts with her future son-in-law's 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.

But Curtis said a grueling schedule may mean the Aug. 23 wedding will be postponed.

A beaming Candace Beatty said the couple isn't worried about the time crunch.

"We're ecstatic," she said while leaving the airport. "It couldn't have been a better year for us."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)