POTOMAC -- Ben Curtis took down the sign outside the pro shop at Mill Creek Golf Club a year after his first PGA Tour victory, the sign proclaiming the public course that his grandfather built near Columbus, Ohio, as the home of the 2003 British Open champion.
"He wanted to get the monkey off his back," Nancy Plant, one of Curtis' aunts and a part owner of the club, said yesterday morning from the clubhouse as she followed her nephew's third round in the Booz Allen Classic on the Internet. "We knew he could win another."
A new sign likely will be going up today, if Curtis can hold onto the huge lead he has built over the first 54 holes at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel. It won't be as celebrated as his win at Royal St. George's three years ago, but it could be nearly as important to his career.
At 19-under-par 194 after shooting a steady 4-under 67 yesterday, Curtis leads Brett Quigley by five strokes. Former champion Steve Stricker is seven back along with Daniel Chopra. Australians Nick O'Hern and Robert Allenby, along with Bart Bryant, are eight behind.
After breaking Adam Scott's tournament record for three rounds by one stroke, Curtis can take a shot at Scott's record of 21-under par set in 2004. Curtis also is hoping to avoid having Quigley match the record for the biggest final-round comeback, set by Justin Leonard when he overcame a five-stroke deficit and a wobbling Mark Wiebe down the stretch to win here in 1997.
"I wouldn't say it is more important [than the British Open], but it's probably as close as important to go out there and prove to myself that I can win again," said Curtis, 29, who has fared no better than a third-place finish last year at the Western Open, where he went into the final round sharing a three-stroke lead with eventual champion Jim Furyk.
While Curtis dreamt of his win in Sandwich, England, two weeks before it happened, it came as a surprise to everyone else, as does his performance at Avenel.
Curtis has no top-10 finishes this year, and only four in the past three years, so most counted him among golf's fluke major champions, right up there with 2003 PGA champion Shaun Micheel; 2004 British champion Todd Hamilton, and the all-time one-shot wonder, Orville Moody, whose only victory in 250 tour events came at the 1969 U.S. Open.
If anything, winning this tournament makes a lot more sense.
"He might have won before he should have," Bob Curtis said yesterday afternoon as he watched his son play after making the 6 1/2 -hour drive from the family's home in Ostrander, Ohio, Friday night with his wife Janice so they could get here for the morning tee time.
"There's a lot to learn. Eventually he knew he'd be back here. Maybe it will be this week, maybe not. Who knows?"
Unless he completely falls apart, or Quigley does better than the 63 he shot Friday to put himself into contention, it seems likely that Curtis will be the first wire-to-wire winner at Avenel since Rich Beem in 1999 and only the second since the tournament formerly known as the Kemper Open moved over from nearby Congressional Country Club in 1987.
Though he hasn't been as spectacular on the greens as he was during an opening-round 62 Thursday, Curtis has been almost an automaton on his approach shots. He hit 18 straight greens in regulation yesterday and is 47 of 54 overall. He is also 34 of 42 in finding fairways. Not that he is going to play it safe today.
"I'm not going to protect it, by any means," said Curtis, who will tee off at 9 this morning as tournament officials decided for the second straight day to try to finish before the possible arrival of late-afternoon thunderstorms. "Guys are going to go out there and they are going to be firing after me, so I'm going to have to keep making birdies."
Quigley, 36, will be trying to lead that charge. The nephew of Champions Tour star Dana Quigley has yet to win in 15 years on the PGA tour. He has come close, most recently at the Barclays Classic, where he was in contention on the back nine Sunday before finishing tied for third.
"It doesn't matter who I'm playing," said Quigley, who along with Phil Mickelson lost a five-stroke lead to Sergio Garcia in the final round at Colonial in 2001. "I know I have to make a bunch of birdies. Whether it's J.B. Holmes or Tiger [Woods] or Mickelson or Ben Curtis or a Q-school guy, I know I have to play well. It's not like I can shoot even par and have a chance. I need to shoot 5-under or better."
Quigley hopes to play better than those who played with Curtis yesterday. Jose Coceres of Argentina, who came into the third round trailing by one stroke after two rounds of 64, bogeyed four of the first six holes en route to a disastrous 7-over-par 78. Jeff Gove came in four strokes back and is now eight behind after a par 71.
"There's still heat on me, I want to win, and that's the bottom line," Quigley said. "He's got a big lead. I think he'll try to start off, if I were him, trying to make birdies. But who knows how it goes out there? I don't know who's got more heat on them. Maybe he does to get a second win. I'll let you know tomorrow afternoon."
booz Allen Classic Scores
At Potomac, par 71
Ben Curtis 62-65-67-194
Brett Quigley 69-63-67-199
Steve Stricker 68-67-66-201
Daniel Chopra 69-65-67-201
Nick O'Hern 74-64-64-202
Robert Allenby 68-68-66-202
Bart Bryant 66-70-66-202
J.B. Holmes 67-66-69-202
Jeff Gove 63-68-71-202
Kevin Sutherland 68-69-66-203
Padraig Harrington 70-65-68-203
Jerry Kelly 68-65-70-203
Shigeki Maruyama 72-65-67-204
Ben Crane 68-68-68-204
Grant Waite 66-70-68-204
K.J. Choi 68-68-68-204
Brian Henninger 72-68-64-204
Mathias Gronberg 70-70-64-204
Jon Mills 69-69-67-205
Charles Warren 71-68-66-205
Michael Allen 70-67-68-205
Billy Andrade 69-68-68-205
Robert Damron 68-68-69-205
Heath Slocum 68-68-69-205
John Huston 67-65-73-205
Darron Stiles 69-69-68-206
Kenny Perry 71-67-68-206
Kris Cox 71-66-69-206
John Engler Jr. 72-65-69-206
Frank Lickliter II 68-69-69-206
Thomas Levet 72-67-67-206
Jonathan Byrd 70-66-70-206
Brent Delahoussaye 72-68-66-206
Tommy Armour III 70-70-66-206
Jose Coceres 64-64-78-206
Marco Dawson 68-70-69-207
Rich Beem 69-68-70-207
Danny Ellis 72-67-68-207
David Branshaw 73-67-67-207
Bernhard Langer 70-65-72-207
Jonathan Kaye 68-70-70-208
John Senden 70-69-69-208
Spencer Levin 69-67-72-208
Fred Funk 71-68-69-208 Steve Flesch 65-71-72-208 Donnie Hammond 70-66-72-208 Glen Day 69-71-68-208 Greg Kraft 74-66-68-208 Jerry Smith 68-70-71-209 Chris Riley 69-71-69-209 Jeff Overton 70-66-73-209 Brett Wetterich 69-71-69-209 Hunter Mahan 69-71-69-209 Craig Barlow 69-67-74-210 Brian Davis 70-70-70-210 Scott Gutschewski 68-72-70-210 Craig Parry 67-71-73-211 Will MacKenzie 65-72-74-211 Steve Elkington 70-69-72-211 Chris Couch 67-72-72-211 Joey Sindelar 70-70-71-211 Brian Gay 71-69-71-211 Troy Matteson 67-71-74-212 Bob May 68-71-73-212 J.P. Hayes 69-70-73-212 Boyd Summerhays 72-67-73-212 Paul Azinger 69-71-72-212 Skip Kendall 72-68-72-212 Ryuji Imada 74-64-75-213 Brent Geiberger 71-69-73-213 James H. McLean 66-69-78-213 Chris Smith 67-73-74-214 Charley Hoffman 70-70-76-216