SAN ANTONIO -- Ben Curtis is at a point in his career that is, admittedly and obviously, a struggle. But the 2003 British Open champion Curtis seems to play his best golf on courses that are a struggle, so he might pull out of this funk if he's the plodder through this adjustment in his career the same way he's been a plodder out on the course.
Playing now under conditionally exempt status, waiting to hear each week if enough fully exempt players have skipped an event, Curtis made it into the Valero Texas Open and has been effective if not spectacular. Matt Every was spectacular, his course-record 63 on Thursday at the TPC San Antonio AT&T Oaks Course good for an easy first-round lead. But Curtis followed with his second-straight bogey-free round of 5-under 67, and that put him at the top of Friday's lead when a line of thunderstorms rumbled through the demanding Greg Norman-designed course moments before a one-hour, 50-minute weather suspension. After the delay, no one threatened Curtis's 10-under clubhouse lead. He will sleep on a two-shot lead, but 22 players still need to finish their second rounds.
"It was a pretty easy two rounds," said Curtis, who actually has 37 consecutive holes without a bogey going back to his last appearance the week before the Masters with a missed cut at the Shell Houston Open. "Even when I missed the greens, there was no terribly difficult up and down. It was all pretty straight forward. Every part of the game was good."
Curtis, 34, barely kept conditional status by finishing 149th on the money list last year when 150th is required. He said that doesn't bother him, but his body English doesn't show it. Questions come about, and Curtis takes his hat and readjusts it. He stumbles a bit through his answer.
But he keeps his head up and maintains a plodder's perspective.
"When you're not playing the schedule you want," Curtis said, "when you don't have it all laid out in front of you before the year starts and you're just playing when you can, it's hard. But you've just got to keep working on the game, and when you get in, take advantage of it.
"You have to adjust to it. It doesn't really bother me. I just go out there. I don't really stress over it."
His body English was much more fluid on the course, when his smooth pass through the ball and complete follow-through had him hitting 16-of-18 greens on Thursday before only 10-of-18 on Friday. But those misses weren't wild ones -- he was able to get down 23 putts in the second round.
His tee shot on the 417-yard 11th found the fairway, yet his wedge from almost 140 yards landed on the green but spun off from a typical Norman-embanked green. It was a manageable enough spot that Curtis chipped in for birdie and was on his way.
That's the sort of course management Curtis will need if he's to regain his fully exempt status and, ultimately, win for the first time since his two victories in 2006 at the Booz Allen Classic and at 84 LUMBER.
His best year since then was 2008 when he had five top-10 finishes (including a tie second at the PGA and tie seventh at the British), was ninth in the FedExCup standings and made 18 cuts.
He'll be lucky to get into 15 tournaments in North America this year. This is only the fourth field he's made here in 2012, and he missed cuts at Mayakoba and Houston. He finished 14th in the other start, an 8-under card at the Puerto Rico Open in March. He has a best finish of 11th, at Dubai, in three starts on the European Tour's swing through the Middle East desert where he has an exemption from the British Open win.
With his ball-striking better, he says, than what it was in '03 when he won by a stroke over Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh at Royal St. George's, Curtis didn't look for anything too technical to find a change with his game.
"Putting," he said. "At Houston we played 36 holes on Friday and I hit 30 out of 36 greens and shot 1 over. I putted like a blind man. I just couldn't find it. I hit a lot of good putts, just nothing went in. The last couple of weeks I changed my grip a little bit. It just seems to have been working so far. We'll see how it goes over the weekend."
One good weekend could bring Curtis back toward where he once was.