KING OF THE HILL

Curtis Strange won his second successive U.S. Open championship by storming up Oak Hill
June 25, 1989

If it were BenHogan whom Curtis Strange were chasing, then Hogan he would be. He would bestubborn, driven, unswerving, unsmiling. He would be steely and strict,forceful and flawless.

A month beforethe 1989 U.S. Open, Strange began to put on his Hogan face. When he was askedto return the trophy he had won at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., lastyear, Strange hesitated. He left it on display at the Kingsmill clubhouse inWilliamsburg, Va., where he makes his home, until the week before thetournament. Why waste good money on Federal Express?

When play beganlast Thursday at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., Strange wasnoticeably, Hoganly stoic: eyes straight ahead, emotions buttoned down. One ofhis partners for the first two rounds, U.S. Amateur champion Eric Meeks, cameoff the 18th green on the second day and said, "He sure doesn't talkmuch." Even Strange's caddie, Greg Rita, chose his words carefully. "Hewas focused," Rita said.

Last Friday,Strange caught a touch of Hogan, tying Bantam Ben's Oak Hill record with ahard-edged 64, a round that included 10 threes and only one missed fairway. OnSaturday, he played poorly (73) and punished himself Hogan-style by beatingpractice balls until it was dark. When he was asked afterward whether he wouldrather be playing the final round with the two players he trailed—Tom Kite and1987 Open winner Scott Simpson—instead of in the pair in front of them, Strangesmiled and said, "Definitely with 'em." Psych.

Finally, onSunday—Hell Day at the Open—Strange was Hogan. His eyes glaring and his faceimmobile, he made par after golf-school par—15 in a row—as havoc reigned aroundhim. In one stretch of what is supposed to be the world's greatest golftournament. Jack Nicklaus hit a chip half an inch. Kite topped a four-wood andmissed an 18-inch putt to give up the lead, Greg Norman made three straightdouble bogeys, and Mark McCumber missed a 2½-foot putt for a par that wouldhave kept him breathing hard on the leaders. Can't anybody here play thisgame?

Kite had a daythat was almost too painful to watch. After leading by one stroke over Simpsongoing into Sunday, Kite self-destructed, scattering balls all over the place.It was a good day for baseball—Kite had two doubles and a triple—but for golf,it was awful. The most consistent player in the game had gone out with an Openon the line and shot an eight-over-par 78. "It was one of those days youpray never happens," said Kite's wife, Christy. "But it did."

Kite wasn't theonly one. Simpson was almost as bad, letting loose a 75 on a day when a simple71 would have won. Sundays at the Open are like that. Only Strange, among thetop six players through Saturday, didn't go out and shoot his worst round ofthe week. "I wanted to play a good round, for me," he said. "A verygood round."

When it was over,Strange stood at two under par, exactly where he had started the day, only nowit was worth first place. Par may not get you much at the Pensacola Open, butit can still buy you a nice chunk of history at the U.S. Open. His final-round70 gave Strange a second straight Open championship, making him the first manto repeat since 1950-51, when it was done by...Hogan.

"Move over,Ben," Strange said when he walked into the pressroom on Sunday night."It was patience. To go as long as I did without a birdie, to hang in thereand do whatever it takes. I like to think of it as a lot of fortitude and guts.Whatever you want to call it...you have to persevere."

It was definitelya week for perseverance at Soak Hill. Perseverance or an ark. It rained allthrough the practice rounds. It drizzled steadily in the opening round onThursday. It rained on and off Friday, and play was briefly suspended in theafternoon. It rained so much overnight that not only was the Saturday startdelayed, but also the traditional twosomes were changed to threesomes and sentoff from both the 1st and 10th tees, the first time the USGA has done that inthe U.S. Open. "This is the worst string of days we've ever had," saidthe USGA's aptly named P.J. Boatwright Jr. "I've never seen a course asdamaged as this one."

With the rain,Oak Hill played longer than its 6,902 yards, but the softened greens yieldedsome scandalously low scores on Day 1: Payne Stewart, Bernhard Langer andformer NCAA champion Jay Don Blake shared the lead at 66, four under par.

In the meantime,the usual suspects were being rounded up and put away: Seve Ballesteros, wholast hit a U.S. Open fairway during the Franco regime, finished dead last ingreens hit: Norman's Sunday 76 left him tied for 33rd: Tom Watson tied for 46that 11 over; Ben Crenshaw and Lanny Wadkins didn't make the cut; and Nicklaus,who opened with a nostalgic 67, finished tied for 43rd.

Strange ledmidway after that brilliant 64. But after 54 holes he was three strokes behindKite, who threw his third straight round in the 60s at Oak Hill. Only LeeTrevino, in 1968—the last time the Open was played at Oak Hill—had put up fourOpen rounds in the 60s. If Strange could do a Hogan, could Kite do a MerryMex?

Still, overKite's curly head hung a grand piano in the form of The Question: When will hewin a major? Kite may be the finest underachiever in the game today. He has wona dozen tournaments, is the PGA Tour's leading money winner this year and iscertain to pass Watson and Nicklaus soon as the game's alltime money winner(Strange is fourth). Yet Kite has never won a major.

Sunday, Kite'sjudgment day, dawned breezy and clear. The crowds were with him. A birdie onthe 3rd hole gave him a three-stroke lead. But the first indication that itwould be a long afternoon came at the 5th hole, after which he perhaps couldhave used a fifth.

He drove intoAllen's Creek on the right and had to take a drop. He hit his third shot shortof the green, chipped to eight feet, rolled the first putt barely by and then,somehow, missed the foot-and-a-half return putt. Triple bogey. A three-shotlead was now a no-shot lead. The rope on the piano was fraying.

Next came bogeysat the 8th and 10th and then a Muni-Open, topped four-wood from the rough atthe par-5 13th. The ball scooted only 30 yards. Double bogey. Worse was hisshot to the par-3 15th, where he plopped squarely in the center of a pond.Another double bogey.

The wound wasdeep. All he had needed was a two-over 72 to win the Open, a 73 to tie. "Myplay stunk," Kite said bravely. "This is the worst round I've playedall year, probably the worst round I've played in five or six years. You don'tgo by the reputation of having consistency like I do and have a round likethis."

With Kitefaltering, Strange was back in it. "When I saw [the scoreboard], I knewthat they were playing into my hands," he said. Now Strange had to dealwith what was left of Simpson and with an uncertain foe. 42-year-old Japanesestar Masashi (Jumbo) Ozaki. Simpson didn't seem a problem. He and his driverwere having an awful spat. Simpson had hit 14 fairways the day before, but onlyhalf that many on Sunday. Ozaki looked like a jumbo headache. He had birdiedthe par-4 10th to tie Strange and Kite for the lead at two under. With theJapanese buying so many American golf courses, why shouldn't a Japanese playerown the best U.S. trophy?

But evenforeigners can catch the Sunday Open shanks. Ozaki hit two wayward drives, on14 and again on 16, for two bogeys and the end of his run.

That left Strangeversus Strange. A one-stroke lead and nobody to beat but bogey. "Inside, Iwas praying [the '88 Open] wasn't a fluke," he said later. He saved asticky par on the 15th with a seven-foot putt, then waded into the toughestthree holes on the course, 16 through 18. But he stepped up to a dead-straight15-foot putt on 16 and stroked it in for his first birdie in 35 holes and atwo-stroke lead. "If any putt won the Open, it was that one," hesaid.

He then parredthe 17th for the first time all week, and moved to the 18th tee. "Two moreswings," Rita told him.

Both wereperfect, a driver and a six-iron to 30 feet above the pin. And as Strangecrested the hill to the 18th green, he allowed himself a show of elation—veryun-Hogan—and then got grim again. He slid his downhill putt purposely past thehole, then lagged back up to within four inches and flicked it in. WhenSimpson, playing behind him, failed to hole out from a bunker, the trophy washeaded back to Kingsmill. "They put some Anheuser-Busch trophy where mineused to be," Strange said. "They're going to have to find a new placefor that real quick."

As Strangeluxuriated in his victory, Kite was sitting, head down, in a dark locker roomabout 500 yards away. In midafternoon the power had failed in the clubhouse,leaving most of Oak Hill lightless, which seemed to match Kite's mood. "Youdon't forget something like this," he said. "I'll never forgetit."

Kite left theclubhouse and walked to his van, accompanied by two New York State troopers. Hemade his way, heavy-hearted, through the crowd, and not a single person said aword to him.

Just then, thegenerator kicked in and the power came back on, leaving Strange standing in anew light. The 1980s are nearly over and golf has learned a few things. Sharksdon't always bite. Life after Nicklaus is possible. And Strange does a betterHogan than we thought.

He joins theelite group of Willie Anderson, John McDermott, Bobby Jones, Ralph Guldahl andHogan as the only men to win consecutive U.S. Opens. He is one of only 16 mento win two Opens.

In a decade offat cats and semistars, the 34-year-old Strange has separated himself from thepack. He has carved out a reputation for lockjaw golf, stubbornness,intractability and intimidation. "I think you've got to have a mean streakin you," he says. "I feel it comes down to who wants it more, and Iwant it a bunch. You can't be afraid to lose."

It was enough tomake Ben Hogan smile.

"To hang in there and do whatever it takes. I liketo think of it as a lot of fortitude and guts."

PHOTOJOHN IACONO PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINKite found shelter from Friday's rain but was left exposed by a triple bogey on Sunday. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINLarry Nelson's final-round 75 scuttled his run at the leaders. He finished six back. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINPlay was delayed four hours on Saturday as squeegee crews groomed the wet course. TWO PHOTOSJOHN D. HANLONOn Friday, putting was agony for Ozaki (top), but Nicklaus found something to laugh at.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)