ERIN, Wis. – Curtis Strange wasn’t born to contend in U.S. Opens – it only seemed that way. It helped that he drove the ball on a string, but there were many elements that he had to add to his repertoire in order to become a completely feared competitor at the U.S. Open.
Strange, now a walking commentator for Fox Sports, won the U.S. Open in his 10th start, at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1988. He enjoyed it so much that he won it again at Oak Hill the following the year. That was the last time anyone captured the event in back-to-back years. So, as the 117th U.S. Open convenes at Erin Hills, what, exactly, makes a great U.S. Open player?
Well, a player again will need to drive it well this week, but at a first-time U.S. Open venue that has fairways ranging up to 70 yards in width, a good many players will be able to do that. Paul Azinger, who will be in the booth for Fox, says there might be as many as 10 players a round who don’t miss a single fairway, a rarity at a U.S. Open. But there are other intangibles required to contend.
“I think you’d better be a fighter,” Strange said. “Hale Irwin. Jack Nicklaus. Of course, Jack was better than everybody else, but don’t think Jack didn’t want to win. (Lee) Trevino. He’d bite your head off, and I love him to death.
“I actually enjoyed it, even before I had success. I’d go in and say, ‘You know, this (course) is the toughest son of a (gun)’ … I liked it. It weeds out a lot of people.”
That was Nicklaus’ theory, too, that a good percentage of the field at any U.S. Open would be mentally done before they even get to the opening tee on Thursday. Nicklaus won the U.S. Open four times.
Steve Stricker, who is playing in his 20th U.S. Open, was asked his thoughts when he hears those simple words: U.S. Open.
“You better bring all parts of your game,” Stricker said. “It’s challenging physically, mentally – maybe even more so mentally because it just keeps beating you down. Usually the courses that we play are so demanding that you just don’t … you don’t give up, but it wears you out. It’s a tiring week. So I think all those things.”
He paused, then added, “I didn’t say too many good things there, I don’t think. But that’s what comes to mind.”
The U.S. Golf Association was widely criticized the last two years for its green surfaces at Chambers Bay, a first-time venue in Washington state that hosted the 2015 championship, and a rules imbroglio that overshadowed the back nine of Dustin Johnson’s victory a year ago at Oakmont. Azinger said the organization finds itself in a rebranding mode with its prized championship.
“It’s always been said the U.S. Open was the toughest test in golf. Now they want it to be ‘the ultimate test of golf,’ ” Azinger said. As he pounded his fists together, he added, “A bit of a rebranding, and less of an ‘us against the players’ kind of a mindset for the USGA.
“I understand that. As long as they don’t go overboard and try to make everybody happy. Because that’s not what it’s all about.”
No, as Azinger learned as a player, there is only one week out of every golfer’s year that can be deemed the toughest, and “90 percent of the time,” he says, it was the U.S. Open. The USGA wants to test players in every facet, physically and mentally. As long as the wind blows, Erin Hills should fill that bill. Who will answer?
“A great U.S. Open player has to have a great head on his shoulders,” Azinger said. “He has to be willing to stay in the moment. I think it’s a torture chamber mentally for a player. The mental test is second to none here, because you know every tee shot off the fairway is a half-shot penalty or worse. You have to be a mental giant to win a U.S. Open.”
Let the exam begin.