No wonder Curtis strange looks like the wrong half of a Grecian Formula ad. He could always win the Houston Opens. He has cashed more checks than a Safeway. But he had to wait and worry and watch his hair turn gray for 12 years, 90 holes and one long, pillow-punching night in Boston before he had what his heart burned for—a major championship.
It finally happened for Strange on Monday at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. He used the simplest shot in golf—the putt—to defeat Her Majesty's Secret Weapon, Nick Faldo of England, 71 to 75 in an 18-hole playoff for the U.S. Open.
And when he clinched it—when Faldo missed a putt on the 17th hole to give Strange a three-shot lead—Strange's throat became thick with gladness. "This is the greatest thing I've ever done," he said, wet-eyed and half-voiced. "This is the greatest feeling I've ever had."
It was not just Strange's moment. With one daylight ride on his fearless putter, Strange gave American golf a hypodermic of confidence. If Faldo, the reigning British Open champion, had jumped happily on the Concorde Monday night, he would have taken with him the third win by a non-American in the last four majors. So turn out the lights in the Old North Church. The British may not be coming after all.
Not that the win was purely for pride and place. Strange won $180,000, an eyedropper to a swimming pool compared with what he'll probably eventually realize, considering that three of his endorsement contracts just happen to expire this year, and others are negotiable. Hello, Hertz? My caddie says your bag is getting awful heavy for him.
But it was not the wallet in the blazer that had Strange choked up. It was what was underneath the wallet, his heart. "What does this mean to me?" he said. "It gets me to the next level. It means it's my first major, and that gets all of you [the press] off my back. It means what every little boy dreams about when he's playing golf late in the afternoon by himself, with four balls. One of them's Snead, one of them's Hogan, one of them's Nicklaus and one's Strange. It means that 99 percent of people's dreams never come true, but mine did. It means all the work I've done over all the years has paid off.... And maybe it means Curtis Strange will be looked at now in a different way."
Over the extra 18 holes, Strange slowly and calmly wrapped his putter around Faldo's neck. Strange had nine one-putt greens, including a six-footer to save par on the 1st hole; a 10-footer for birdie at the 5th; a six-footer to save par on 6; a 20-footer for birdie on 7; a seven-footer for par on 9; and, the killer, a 30-footer for birdie on 13. He hit only eight fairways and as many greens. He had to putt well. Said an exhausted Faldo, "Yesterday seems like a long time ago."
Strange couldn't get rid of yesterday fast enough. He had three-putted the 17th on Sunday to give Faldo life, and that blunder gate-crashed his dreams. "I didn't sleep much last night," he said.
When the one and only pairing of the day was ready to play at 2 p.m. on Monday, Strange took off. He didn't always lead, but he never trailed.
The margin swung from Strange one shot up to Strange no shots up until the 11th, where Faldo bogeyed, giving Strange a two-shot lead. Strange gave a little back on the par-4 12th, the diabolical mountain known as Boston's new Heartbreak Hill, where he made bogey. One-shot lead. But on the next hole, Strange's lucky 13th, the Open was finally closed.
Faldo drove in the rough—which he does once a papal election or so—and hit his approach shot 35 feet above the cup. He rolled his first putt six feet by. Strange took his divining rod and struck pay dirt from 30 feet for birdie. As the putt fell, Strange celebrated with a one-knee-down, 7-come-11 craps roll. Faldo then missed his comeback putt—and there was a two-shot swing and a three-shot Strange lead. Faldo never recovered. After all those years of taking everything but the big pots, Strange was finally cashing in.
In hindsight, it was a lock that Strange and Faldo would end up in Velcro-to-Velcro combat. For one thing, they're two models rolled off the same assembly line: Strange, 33, handsome, one of the top players in his country, married, two children, a straight, short hitter, an unflappable putter, with a temper retooled since the time Arnold Palmer had to scold him for scaring an elderly scorekeeper with a tantrum; and Faldo, 30, handsome, one of the top two players in his country (along with Masters champion Sandy Lyle), married, one child, an extremely straight driver, insufferably efficient (he won the '87 British Open at Muirfield by making 18 pars in the final round), with a swing retooled by—egad!—a Florida teacher, David Lead better of Orlando.
Then there was the history of the Open at The Country Club, which made it seem almost mandatory that there be a playoff. Even a sportswriter could see the symmetry in this one. Seventy-five years ago there was a playoff at Brookline, in which an unknown local, 20-year-old Francis Ouimet, fought another British invasion by bettering the dynamic duo of Ted Ray—like Faldo, the reigning British Open champ—and Harry Vardon. (To commemorate the event, Mac O'Grady went to Ouimet's old house on Clyde Street, across the street from the course, before his round on Friday morning and rubbed his putter against the place for good luck. He missed the cut anyway.) And 25 years ago there was a playoff in which Julius Boros fought off an Arnie invasion—O.K., Jacky Cupit was there, too—to win his second U.S. Open. So why not make it three for three?
The week's drama at The Country Club included a few hitches—like a bomb scare in the wee hours on Sunday. Police searched the premises and found nothing. Bostonians were outraged by a short article in Golf Digest that many readers felt was insulting to the Irish. The story, written by British journalist Peter Dobereiner, referred to the end of the 19th century and said, in part, "It's getting so that you can't walk around Boston without tripping over a drunken Kerryman." Not smart anywhere, but especially not smart in Boston, where Mayor Ray Flynn and thousands of his constituents are of Irish descent. On Monday, before the tournament began, stacks of the magazine, which had been distributed with the Sunday edition of The Boston Globe, were dumped into the harbor in a ceremony dubbed the Boston Tee Party. (Not all writers were persona non grata as a result, however. Author and avid golfer John Updike, who lives in nearby Beverly Farms and belongs to the Myopia Hunt Club, donned the official green-and-khaki Open uniform and marshaled the 7th hole at The Country Club on Thursday and Friday.)
The extraordinary thing about The Country Club was that even though this was a U.S. Open, the players actually liked the course and the way it was set up. The rough was not bad, they said; the greens were not hard, either. It sure didn't seem like the Open. On Thursday, for instance, Lyle missed the fairway seven times and still shot 68 to share the lead with Bob Gilder and Mike Nicolette. On Friday, defending champion Scott Simpson, who had a first-round 69, made eight birdies for a 66 and a one-shot lead over Larry Mize.
Eight birdies? An Open course usually won't give up eight birdies in two days. For the whole tournament, quaint old Brookline surrendered more sub-par rounds than any other U.S. Open. What was this, Pensacola?
Gilder was a strange sight, too. For the past four years he has been racing cars as a hobby, but he hasn't won much fast money playing golf lately. He was 100th on the money list in 1987 and was 104th this year going into the Open. Still, by Saturday evening he was only one stroke behind Strange, who had shot 70, 67 and 69, the third one including the miss of a three-footer on the 17th.
What was not so strange was the sight of the Pretty Good White Shark, Greg Norman, losing to the same thing he always encounters in major tournaments, Cursed Fate. Even with his friend Larry Bird in the gallery on Thursday, Norman couldn't avoid being slam-dunked by bad luck. On the 9th hole of Friday's round, his seven-iron hit his ball and a rock all at once. "Something had to give," said Norman. It was his left wrist. He parred the hole to remain at four over for the Open and then hit his tee shot at the 10th. But the pain was too much, and he withdrew from the tournament. With his arm wrapped in ice packs and supported by a sling, he left the course and flew by private jet to the Birmingham office of Dr. James Andrews, surgical mender of Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens's injured shoulder in 1985. Andrews announced his diagnosis that night: sprained wrist. It was the most attention a wrist had had since Princess Di wore two watches.
Norman's mentor, Jack Nicklaus, took an unhappy nostalgia tour. He missed the cut at Brookline in 1963. He missed the cut in '88. Took the guy 25 years at The Country Club to get in four rounds.
So what you had scattered among the living Sunday morning were three men who were trying to live down their reputations: Two of them, Simpson and Faldo, as "fluke" winners of majors; and one, Strange, as a golfer who wins everything but majors. But this time, things would be different. Like a marathon runner, Strange seemed to be career-peaking for the Open. After he out-dueled Hale Irwin last month at the Memorial tournament, Irwin said, "He is the best player in the world." Strange wished Irwin hadn't praised him so lavishly. "I still say it's someone else," Strange said last week, "and I will until I prove it to myself."
He wasn't talking about money—Strange has been a human automatic teller machine, finishing No. 1 on the money list in 1985 and '87—and he wasn't talking about wins, of which he now has 15. He was talking about majors. He had courted only one, the 1985 Masters, which he threw into the water guarding the 13th and 15th holes at Augusta, to the delight of Bernhard Langer.
"Majors," Strange said Thursday. "That's the thing I'm missing. But what would I trade for one? How many tournaments? I'd rather not trade. I'd rather add."
He started Sunday by subtracting. He bogeyed two of the first three holes. Suddenly, he wasn't in the lead, and the red shirt he had recycled from his wins this season at Muirfield Village and Houston looked blood red. "I wasn't feeling too sporty," he said after his round.
Just as suddenly, D.A. Weibring, a man who hadn't felt sporty all week because of a lingering intestinal bug, was acting very spry. He rammed in a 25-foot birdie putt on the 5th to tie with Faldo for the lead. Weibring had a good luck piece that his eight-year-old son, Matt, had given him before Thursday's round, and he kept tapping it. He finally must have tapped out, though, because he bogeyed the 8th and 17th and eventually finished tied for third, with a four-under-par 280.
Gilder, the race car driver, blew a gasket early, bogeying the 1st, 7th and 10th and assorted others, to finish tied for eighth. See you at Daytona, Bob? Simpson never so much as pestered the leaders again on his way to a 74 and a tie for sixth place. Only Mark O'Meara had a chance to really bother the big two on Sunday's back nine. He was within a shot of Strange and Faldo after birds at 9 and 10, but that was the end of his ornithology outing. He ended up two strokes behind, in a tie with Weibring and Steve Pate.
No, the fourth round belonged to the Yank and the Brit. Strange birdied the par-3 7th to tie Faldo, and then birdied the 10th to take the lead. The gyrations were all Strange's. Faldo was busy stacking up those perfect little pars, hitting every fairway (he missed only four the first three rounds, and none on Sunday), but making no birdie putts. Faldo tapped in more short ones than Earl Scheib paints Buicks.
Strange held that one-stroke lead until Faldo finally dropped a six-footer for birdie on the easy 15th. Tied again.
Now the fans started to get wild—not as crazy as on the 12th, though, when Strange had asked police to remove a fan named Charles Abdennour, nicknamed Kodiak, who had allegedly harassed Strange and other players before. (Abdennour reportedly has claimed to be Jesus Christ, Nicklaus's adopted son and Nicklaus's dog.) USGA officials later reported that Abdennour had been thrown off the course one other day during the week. With Abdennour gone—he was arrested for disorderly conduct and trespassing—the crowd was on to new passions. "Beat L.A.! Beat LA.!" they chanted at the 18th, urging on Detroit in the sixth game of the NBA Finals, which many were following on portable radios. And beginning on 16, after each shot was struck, the mob broke through the ropes and swarmed past the players to ring the fairway or the green. The question wasn't which player was going to win, but which was going to become a human welcome mat. "I guess the Red Sox must be out of town," Strange said.
Through all of this, it was still easy to find the two players' wives. They watched all the holes together. Fast friends they were, and when they realized there would be a playoff, Sarah Strange turned to Gill Faldo and said, "We're out of clothes. Do you have any shorts I can borrow for tomorrow?" She didn't.
It was Nick's shorts that looked cooked when the husbands came to the par-3 16th. Strange's six-iron bad-hopped across the putting surface and ended in the greenside rough, and Faldo's was miserably bunkered against the brooding lip of a trap. Strange pitched poorly and left himself 25 feet short. Faldo sandblasted far past the pin. But then Strange did something amazing. He holed his putt. You could have heard the roar in Providence. Just your typical par. Except that it appeared to have just won him his dreamed-for Open championship and the respect he wanted. When Faldo two-putted, the tournament was Strange's for the pocketing.
Q: "What did you think your chances were then, Nicky?"
A: "Bad and awful."
Not exactly true. On Thursday, Nicklaus said, prophetically, "Opens aren't usually won, they're usually lost." And that's what Strange almost did over the next two holes.
With the Bostonians whooping it up for Strange as though he had recently come out against Jack Nicholson, Strange hit an A-1 drive on 17—it was 30 yards longer than Faldo's—and then a perfect nine-iron above the cup, within 12 feet. The problem was, all 12 feet were dead downhill on the slickest rug on the course. "I thought up there was perfect," Strange said on the practice tee later. "I hadn't been up there yet." Strange tapped his ball as delicately as a diamond cutter working on the uptown bus. "I really wish I could get upset at myself for [how I played] 17," he said later. "But I honestly can't. I was trying to two-putt the son of a gun." The ball slid five feet past the hole, and when Strange couldn't make the come-backer, he and Faldo were tied again.
Somehow, amid the mayhem, both players parred the 18th—Faldo from, natch, the middle of the fairway. Strange from the left-side rough and the front bunker. Still, two fours. Both six under. Same time tomorrow, then?
Neither man had ever been in an 18-hole playoff before. Faldo liked the idea. "I don't agree with sudden death for a major because you battle for 72 holes—four days—and all of a sudden it's decided in 15 minutes," he said. "It's a little bit too severe."
And you, Curtis?
Strange paused a second and then said, "I'll tell you tomorrow afternoon. I don't know."
We think we know.