Hamilton has struggled since winning in 2004
He's had only one top-10 finish since winning at Troon a year ago.
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) -- Todd Hamilton has already returned the claret jug -- whew, he made it through the year without losing it -- but he's still the British Open champion.
So, he dutifully paused Wednesday alongside the putting green, patiently signing every hat, program and flag that was put in front of him, as if relishing what likely will be the last few days of his reign -- or at least understanding that this comes with the territory.
"Can you sign this, champ?" someone asked, thrusting a piece of memorabilia Hamilton's way.
Nearby, a chap with a thick Scottish burr asked a question that still comes up for one of the most unlikely major winners: "Who's that?"
"Todd Hamilton," someone replied.
A blank stare.
"The guy who won last year."
Oh, that guy.
Beat Els in playoff
Hamilton was a 38-year-old PGA Tour rookie -- not long removed from plying his trade as an expatriate in Japan -- when he defeated three-time major winner Ernie Els in a four-hole playoff at Royal Troon last year.
An Illinois native who now calls Texas home, Hamilton hoisted the jug of the world's oldest championship, hauled it back across the Atlantic for a yearlong victory tour and assured himself that he was just getting started (granted, a little later than most) on a long, successful career.
So far, it hasn't worked out.
Much like Ben Curtis in 2003, Hamilton has given little indication of being more than a one-week American fluke in the British Isles.
"It hasn't," he admitted on the eve of this year's Open, "turned out the way I anticipated."
Knows how to win
Hamilton certainly knows what it takes to win, whether on the Asian Tour (three victories in 1992), the Japan Tour (11 triumphs from 92-03) or the PGA Tour (he won the Honda Classic last year in just his sixth event after earning his card for the first time).
When Hamilton bumped off one of the world's top players to become a member of the exclusive major-winners club, it seemed apparent he was a late bloomer who merely needed a chance.
Certainly, that's the way Hamilton felt.
"I didn't think it was easy, but I thought the success that I had would give me a lot of confidence to go on and do bigger and better things," he said. "I don't think I've played poorly, but I haven't really gotten anything out of my good shots. If I drive the ball good one day, it seems my irons are off. If my irons are good, I don't make the putts."
After winning at Troon, Hamilton had only one other top-10 finish the rest of the 2004. Considering all the hoopla that accompanied his British Open victory, that's understandable.
Struggling with putter
But Hamilton hasn't been able to turn things around this year, either. His best finish coming into St. Andrews? A tie for 13th at the John Deere Classic. Most troubling, he's struggled with the putter, long the strongest club in his bag.
"I just can't get anything strung together," he moaned. "I'll have two good rounds or three good rounds, but I always throw in a 75 or 76, it seems like, and that doesn't do you any good."
Even if Hamilton never wins again, no one can take away that memorable afternoon in Scotland, when he shook off a bogey on the 72nd hole to beat Els with four straight pars in the playoff.
The Big Easy was clearly shaken by his loss -- the third of four close calls in the majors last year.
"Near misses like that, you look back at what you could have done better and where you made silly mistakes," Els said. "Yeah, it takes a while, but we're over it now. It's not like the first time I've been close."