For most of last Friday afternoon he looked like vintage Curtis
Strange. There he was, grinding away on the No. 2 course at
Pinehurst, making U.S. Open pars, moving a marshal with a flick
of his fingers, staring down a windblown hamburger wrapper that
dared to cross his line of flight, walking 50 yards ahead of his
playing partners, Jack Nicklaus and Hal Sutton.
Strange was always a grinder, even when he won his consecutive
U.S. Opens, the first in 1988 at the Country Club, in Brookline,
Mass., the second at Oak Hill, near Rochester, N.Y. Since World
War II, only one other golfer has won the national championship
in consecutive years, Ben Hogan in 1950 and '51, and when
Strange came off the final green at Oak Hill, about the first
thing he said was, "Move over, Ben."
The truth is that they deserved to share mantel space. The Scots
called Hogan the Wee Ice Mon, but at the height of his powers,
Strange himself had the Wee Ice thing down cold. These days, he
seldom brings out that side. He's a TV guy now, and he does
corporate outings, and he has become polite. The vintage
Strange, like the good china, comes out only on special
occasions, and it was on full display for a couple of hours on
Friday afternoon. If it weren't for the kid traipsing behind the
three golfers, hoisting their scores high above his capped head,
you would have thought that Strange was looking to make a move
on the leaders, looking to climb right up the big board. In
reality, at 44, all he was trying to do was make the cut.
He is a son of the South, a Virginian born and bred, and in
this, his 21st Open, he was finally playing a national
championship in the land of his forebears. The Open was last in
the Confederacy in the year of the Bicentennial, at the Atlanta
Athletic Club, and a native Georgian, Jerry Pate, won that year.
Strange played in his first Open in '77 and hasn't missed one in
20 years. For all of this decade he has always known where he
would be the third week in June, because an Open winner is
exempt from qualifying for 10 years. This was the final year of
his exemption. To compete in an Open again, he'll either have to
play his way in or receive special dispensation from his
coat-and-tie friends at the USGA. It is possible--not
likely--that the Open at Pinehurst will be the final Open of his
life. He has won 17 times on Tour, played on five Ryder Cup
teams, been the leading money winner three times, but his Open
wins are what define his golfing life.
Strange came to Pinehurst as Pate came to Atlanta and as Rich
Beem came to last month's Kemper Open, with dreams he didn't dare
whisper. In the week before last, at the Memphis tournament,
Strange shot rounds of 65, 71, 70 and 68, playing well, although
he finished 25th. On the weekend afternoons he worked the ABC
telecasts. Balancing two jobs is never easy for anybody. Hal
Sutton, just three years younger than Strange and again playing
good golf, said, "If Curtis just decided, 'I'm through with
commentating, I'm just going to work hard on my game,' he'd come
back. But once you reach a certain level, it takes a lot of hard
work to stay at that level, and you lose your desire to do the
work." Maybe it's that simple.
Jay Haas--he and Strange went to Wake Forest together and have
been traveling the Tour side by side for 23 years--played with
Strange for three rounds at Memphis, and Haas gave Strange the
kind of boost and push only a trusted friend can give. "You're
playing really well," Haas said.
"Yeah," Strange said.
"No, really well," said Haas.
Strange took it from there. Last Wednesday--on the course, on
the practice tee, on the putting green, in the practice
bunkers--it was the old Strange at work. A dozen bunker shots
followed by a dozen more, then a dozen more after that. One
short putt after another after another. "I'll sign later, guys,
O.K.?" he asked rhetorically while blowing through a sea of
extended hands holding pens and paper. Daylight was limited, and
there was work to be done. You want to win an Open, you leave a
pound of your flesh and a piece of your soul in the dirt of the
practice tee. That's where Hogan said the secret of golf could
be found, in the dirt.
When the day was over, Strange looked tired. His hair, all
silver now, makes him look older than his years. But his trim
swing has barely aged. The next morning, at 7:20, he was
standing under an umbrella in a steady rain, ready to go,
thinking the big thoughts. Sometimes those are the worst. He
went out in 41. Only one player in the field of 156 had a higher
front-nine score. He finished the day with a 78, eight over par,
the same as the Golden Bear, a 59-year-old legend with a left
hip that's just five months old.
When you've been playing the Tour for 23 years, you have things
to fall back on. At the Masters in 1985, Strange opened with an
80, made the cut with a second-round 65 and finished tied for
second, two strokes behind the winner, Bernhard Langer. In the
second round at Pinehurst, Strange knew he would have to spend
the day clawing, just as he had on that Friday at Augusta 14
years ago. On this Friday he went out in level-par 35--only nine
players had better front-nine scores--and was fixing to go to
seven over for the tournament after he stiffed his second shot
on the 11th, a bestial par-4. It felt all day like 147, seven
over, would be the cut. This one he needed. Strange missed a
putt shorter than he is tall and lost his head a bit, too, and
his par felt like a bogey. He doubled the 12th, bogeyed the two
back-nine par-3s, and he was done. He had shot 74 on a day he
needed 69. He packed up his clubs, his two boys, Thomas, 16, and
David, 14, and his wife, Sarah, and made the drive home across
the Sandhills of North Carolina to the Virginia river town of
Kingsmill, where he lives.
The ovation on Friday on the 18th was mostly for Nicklaus,
playing in his 43rd consecutive Open. But part of it, to be
sure, was for Strange, who did something that Nicklaus and
Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino could not: win Opens back-to-back.
Palmer made his teary farewell to the Open in 1994, at Oakmont,
near Pittsburgh, in the backyard of his boyhood home, on a
course crammed with history for him. In 1975 and again the next
year, Strange had won the North and South Amateur on Pinehurst's
No. 2 course. If he were making his Open swan song, he had
picked a good place to do it.
There were no tears for Strange, nothing like that. Strange was
not making his Open swan song. Definitely not. At a press
conference before the tournament somebody asked, "Have you
thought that this might be your last Open?" To which Strange
answered, "You don't want to bet your house against mine that
this is going to be my last U.S. Open, do you?"
He continued, "Some people treat [my exemption running out] like
it's the end of the world, but it's been great. I haven't had to
qualify for 10 years. I qualified well before that, and I will
qualify next year if I'm not otherwise exempt. It's not a
disgrace to have to qualify. It's a disgrace not to try."
Strange has a life away from competitive golf--fishing, being
with his boys, designing courses and commentating on TV. Almost
nobody would say his TV work is in the class of Johnny Miller's
of NBC. Miller is the best, and he won at the AT&T when he was
46. But Strange is a good commentator, and if you listen to him,
you'll learn something about the game and how the pros play it.
Chris Berman, the ESPN announcer, covered Strange's Open wins
and watches his telecasts, and he sees and hears an emerging
talent in the commentating game. "You see him going a lot
farther now, in terms of how hard to be or how soft to be, than
you did in his first year," Berman says of Strange, who is in
his third season as a talking golf head. "He's delivering, not
pontificating. He's grinding, working hard. He's trying to win
the TV U.S. Open just the way he won his U.S. Opens at Brookline
The Ryder Cup is at the Country Club in September, and Strange's
chances of being on the U.S. team are beyond slim, even as a
captain's pick. He was a captain's selection in 1995, when the
match was at Oak Hill, and Strange didn't win a point. It's hard
to imagine that a decade has come and gone and one of the
greatest players of his generation has practically no hardware
to show for it, but that's what has happened. He won his second
Open in '89, then wore himself out trying to win a third in '90,
at Medinah. Strange won in Australia in '93, but that's it since
Father's Day, 1989. For a while he could do anything on a golf
course, and now he cannot. In golf, players ask, Where does it
go when it goes? In life, people ask, Where does the time go? If
you've got answers, a whole bunch of people--Curtis Strange
among them--would like to hear what you've got to say.
In the locker room at a U.S. Open, the past champions are all in
a row, so Nicklaus and Strange spent their short week at
Pinehurst elbow to elbow, both on the course and in the
clubhouse. In the early and mid-'80s they competed against each
other, but that was a long time ago. At Pinehurst they assessed
each other gently. "He gave away a lot of shots around the
green," Nicklaus said of Strange. "Curtis was trying very hard,
but sometimes that isn't good enough." Strange had shot 152 and
Nicklaus, the winner of four Opens, 153.
As they cleaned out their lockers on Friday evening, the two old
pros--O.K., a middle-aged pro and an old pro--commiserated and
made the observations you are qualified to make only if you have
a vast amount of experience. They concluded that the USGA had
not so much returned chipping to the U.S. Open as it had brought
putting from off the green to the U.S. Open.
They didn't linger. They knew that the Duvals and the Mickelsons
were now at center stage. Strange said he would try to get back
to next year's Open at Pebble Beach any way he could. He said,
"I was playing plenty well enough today to make the cut."
He sounded like a realist, and a man who understands the
ruthlessness of passing time.
10-year exemption has expired. "It's a disgrace not to try."