'Let's Not Mess This up'

Blessed with a fine family and a solid game, Curtis Strange vowed not to succumb to his Masters debacle—and made the year his best ever
January 13, 1986

Curtis Strange's final approach shot of 1985, a nine-iron from the 18th fairway of the north course at Bardmoor Country Club in Florida, went, fittingly enough, into the hole. But as good as last year was for Strange, it wasn't perfect: The ball bounced out and came to rest 25 feet away.

Strange acknowledged the warm applause of the crowd at the J.C. Penney mixed team tournament with the appreciative smile he is flashing more and more easily, but—damn!—he wished that ball had stayed in the hole.

It was that kind of year for Strange, whose $542,321 eclipsed Tom Watson's 1980 record for one-year earnings by almost $12,000. Strange won three tournaments in 1985 and was named Player of the Year by the Golf Writers Association of America, but though he enjoyed the greatest success of his nine-year pro career, he may be remembered as much for one tournament he led and lost and for another he didn't even play in.

Strange had to endure the painful disappointment of losing the Masters in April, when he twice hit into water on closing holes. And then, when he skipped the British Open, a major that is coveted by nearly everyone else, he was stung by sharp criticism from the press. But he has never ducked controversy or challenge and he finished the year as aggressively in pursuit of victory as ever.

Until recently, Strange's aggressiveness was often a problem, but he has learned to channel it. Bill Rogers, a fellow pro and good friend who is trying to recapture his own drive, says almost enviously, "Curtis has more determination, more fire, more want than any player I've ever seen." Jim Thorpe says, "Curtis just won't take no for an answer."

Along with immense talent—his ability to play well while experimenting with different swing theories is legend on the tour—intense desire is the reason Strange is the decade's most steadily improving golfer. He is neither a powerful hitter nor a gifted putter, but he has no overt weaknesses and is a superb course manager, with a compact swing that repeats with assembly-line precision. Since 1980 he has had seven victories and more top 10 finishes—55—than anyone except Tom Kite and Watson. Only Strange, Watson and Craig Stadler have won at least $200,000 in each of the last six years.

That intensity about golf has been with Strange since he was an 8-year-old playing at the White Sands Country Club in Virginia Beach, where his father, Tom, was the pro. "I don't think I have hit a shot in the last six years where I haven't given 110 percent," says Strange in his rich Virginia drawl. "It's just not in me. Even if I'm 100 over par, I find myself trying. I don't know why. I just still try like hell."

His effort has gone largely unappreciated by the public, mostly because he never used to give any outward indication that he cared what people thought of him. His on-course moods seemed dark and, unlike temper flashers like Stadler or Lanny Wadkins, Strange rarely balances his obvious discomfort over a bad shot with even a little exultation after a good one. To fans and the press, he was a brooding Heath-cliff of the fairways.

"If I had anything to change, it would be the way I started out on the tour," says Strange. "I came out hotheaded, and the way people perceive you when you first come out is the way they might perceive you your whole career. Back then, I was out to prove myself as a player, not as a person. If I had projected better—taken the picture and made it brighter in the beginning—it would be brighter now."

Last January, Strange turned 30, got a new putter and set out on a hot streak. By March he had his game at a peak. At the Honda Classic he beat Peter Jacobsen in a playoff, but a decided pro-Jacobsen sentiment in the gallery and in the newspapers the next morning told him it wasn't a popular victory.

"That hurt," says Strange. "They were almost saying, 'Oh hell, he is going to be a good player. Now we've got to put up with the jerk. Wish he'd stay in the background.'

"For a little while I thought, why am I beating my brains out to win? I can make a very good living without finishing first." When he expressed such sentiments, his wife, Sarah, asked, "Does this mean you aren't going to win again?" The answer came with a victory at the Panasonic Invitational in Las Vegas. In March alone he won $289,654, and things were going great again. Sarah gave birth to their second son, David, and Curtis went off to Augusta the next week.

He opened with a dismal 80 and had plane reservations home for Friday afternoon, thinking he would surely miss the cut. But he shot 65, in fact played the next 45 holes in spectacular fashion, 15 under par, to take a four-stroke lead with nine holes to play on Sunday. He got a bit shaky around Amen Corner, and with a two-shot lead, he hit a four-wood into the creek on 13. At 15 he hit a four-iron into the water that guards the green and finished two shots behind the late-charging winner, Bernhard Langer. Even with months to reflect, Strange says, "I'd take out the same clubs again."

Everyone expected him to throw his clubs into Rae's Creek and stomp off, but Strange sensed that he would be forever judged by the way he handled this defeat. "I figured, let's not mess this up," he says, and for two hours he graciously answered questions in the press room. The next morning he read, among other things: "Curtis Strange lost another golf tournament yesterday and won a bunch of new friends."

"Part of me wishes nobody had ever gotten to see that side of me, because I wish I had won," says Strange. "But I'm glad people got to see someone other than the hard-core Curtis Strange."

The "someone other" is a modest, relaxed guy with a wife and two boys and an easy way with a beer. At home in Williamsburg, Va., his friends include fishing buddies with nicknames like Chicken and Bubba.

But on or off the course, Strange is also strong-willed. He showed it by not going to the British Open in July when the whole golf world, which measures greatness more by majors than money, expected him to be there. He defended his decision to stay home, saying he was tired and didn't want to be away from his family. But the following week he crossed the Atlantic to play in the Dutch Open, an event with little prestige that bolsters its otherwise weak field by paying stars like Strange fat fees to appear. Even his agent, Hughes Norton, says flatly, "Curtis should have played [the British Open]." But Strange refuses to apologize or second-guess himself. "My reasons are still my reasons," he says.

Of his demeanor, Strange says, "I get mad because, gosh damn, that's what I'm supposed to do. I'm not supposed to shrug it off and say, 'O.K., another bad shot,' like it seems a lot of people do out here. My game is centered on not having lapses. If I have a lapse, that's when I get mad. It's not all fun and games. Nobody said it was supposed to be."

And it wasn't fun when he started. He had won the NCAA individual title as a Wake Forest freshman in 1974, but he failed his first qualifying school by a stroke in 1976. He qualified on his second try in 1977.

"If I was going to fail, I was going to do it with both barrels loaded and blasting away," says Strange. "I told a lot of people to get the hell out of my way."

"He wasn't the worst guy out here, but Curtis had a reputation for flying off the handle," says Mike Crosthwaite, a PGA Tour official. "You just didn't want to get in Curtis's way after a bad round."

"Let's face it, he was an ass at times, and there are times when he still is," says Allan Strange, Curtis's identical twin, who spent one year on the tour himself before becoming a stockbroker. "Curtis is hard on everybody, but most of all he's hard on himself. People don't understand it because most of us just don't put that kind of internal pressure on ourselves."

Caddies speak of Strange's on-course behavior with a mixture of wonder and dread. "His attitude was, 'I'm a hothead, you're working for me, and that's it,' " says one. Linn Strickler, who now works for Fred Couples, stayed with Strange longer than any caddie—three years. "Sometimes it was almost intolerable," says Strickler. "Curtis was after something I never understood—I only knew it included pars and birdies. If something else cropped up, the putter would get jammed into the bag, he'd put his shoulder down, and the ball would be whipped at me—behind his back, at my feet, anywhere. I was the caddie Gold Glove three years in a row."

Galleries sensed the rage, noticed the prematurely gray hair and, despite his often superb play, generally responded to Strange coolly.

"I'm not going to say I liked myself either," says Curtis. "Lots of times I wished I was different. Lots of things I did I wasn't proud of."

In 1982, during the second round at Doral, Strange, angered that he had driven into the rough, kicked the bottom of his golf bag as it was being carried by caddie Gene Kelley. Kelley, who was knocked to the ground, finished the round but says he suffered back injuries that four months later required spinal surgery. He sued Strange. Strange's attorneys contended there was no proof that the kick had caused any damage, since Kelley had a previous back condition. Kelley, 30, has caddied only sporadically since the incident, and last year agreed to a settlement of $65,000 from Strange's insurance company.

A week after the Doral incident, at Bay Hill, Strange hit a poor second shot during the final round and used strong language to tell a volunteer scorer she had been in his line of sight. After the round, the scorer, 65-year-old Peggie Berry, tearfully filed a complaint against Strange with the PGA Tour. Officials were also told that Strange had loudly cursed a photographer before the gallery on the final green after the photographer's motor drive had gone off as Strange missed a short putt.

Strange was fined, but the most effective penalty came when an angry Arnold Palmer, the host at Bay Hill, wrote a letter to Commissioner Deane Beman in which he said "the abusive language and displays of temperament...discourteous and ungentlemanly behavior and thoughtlessness of certain of our leading players is despicable to me."

It proved a turning point. First, Strange sought out Palmer to apologize. "Those stern talking-to's do a lot to me, especially when they come from someone I respect," he says. "We just decided that I wasn't doing myself any good and it was time to straighten up."

For the next two years, Strange struggled to find a temperament he could play his best golf with. He had a talk with Watson, in which Strange found out that Watson sometimes gives himself a cramp in his left calf when he gets really angry. "It was nice to find out I'm not the only one who gets mad enough to go one on one with a tree," he says. And he made an effort to change his image, with television spots like one last year for the tour in which he extolled the efforts of volunteers at tournament sites. "I had to laugh a little to myself when I saw that," says Berry, who had earlier received a letter of apology from Strange. "But it's nice that he's trying to do better."

"I haven't tried that hard to be a nice guy," says Strange, "I just tried some. I still get mad, but I'm more aware of how it looks to others. It doesn't take a whole lot of effort. It's just that before I never put forth any effort at all.

"In a business sense, it's smart. Personally, I feel better about myself. And when you project very positive, very confident, very happy, maybe you might not feel that way all the time, but it will eventually spill over into your game. And people will like me better for it."

The person who best understands how hard Curtis has tried to change is Sarah. They met at a mixer when she was a freshman at Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C. and he a Wake Forest sophomore dubbed Brutus by his fraternity buddies for his then macho-minimalist speech and power game.

"Curtis was just different," she says. "He was sitting in a corner, very quiet and very shy. But there was something inside those eyes. You could just see he had a lot of feeling...a lot of guts. It sounds corny, but right then I was thinking, That's the one."

Strange is quick to lampoon any sentimentality. "I was sitting on a pool table," he corrects. "And I was drunk."

They were married when Curtis left school after his junior year. When he failed to get his card in the 1976 qualifying school and had to play overseas, Sarah saw just how much golf meant to him.

"I guess he had tried to hide all that intensity from me at first, but one day in a hotel room in Japan it just came out," remembers Sarah. "He started banging the walls with his fist and swearing. I just watched. He finally noticed I was scared and he said, 'I'm sorry. I won't ever do that again.' All I could think was, this is not the guy I married. But I learned to understand."

Strange was profoundly affected by the death of his father, himself a four-time Virginia Open winner, at age 39 of cancer. Curtis was 14. "Curtis took it harder than anyone," says Allan. "I've always thought that's why he was a son of a bitch for such a long time after. We fought more than any two guys in P.E. class. Then again, if you messed with one of us, you messed with both of us."

Says Curtis, "I always wanted to succeed for him, and I still do to this day. At times he probably wouldn't have been very proud of me. But there are a few others he would have been."

One of those would have been Strange's victory in July at the Canadian Open, where he beat Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman down the stretch. "That was the greatest moment of my life," he says, "because it proved I wasn't devastated by the Masters and I was going to play well again." Still, he says candidly, "the Masters has been a tough thing to forget. And I won't ever forget it."

He is optimistic about 1986. "I think I can take it to the next level and stay there—with some work," he says. "It will be just as tough as ever. You would think you could relax, everything's going your way. But I don't let myself relax. I've been thinking about this year and what's going to happen, every night."

But then Strange let the memories sink in. "Of course," he said, "if I never do another thing in golf, I had 1985."

PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGBefore embarking on '86, Curtis mugged at home with Sarah, David (left) and Thomas. PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGThe intense Strange enjoys the solitary nature of golf. PHOTOJOHN IACONOStrange's Masters assault fizzled when he visited Rae's Creek at the 13th on Sunday. PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGThat's Curtis on the left with his identical twin, Allan—or is Curtis the one on the right? PHOTOMARK S. WILLIAMSA flotilla of Strange fans gathered at Kingsmill last summer to cheer their local hero.