Curtis Strange was a bare-knuckle fighter who happened to fall in love with a sport where the only thing he hit was a golf ball.
But the serenity of golf did nothing to temper his intensity, for he treated every golf course as a fistfight. His ferocity – plus sharp iron play, a rock-solid putter and superb accuracy with his driver – gave him the edge he needed to stand up to anyone and any course back in his day. He rode that fury to 17 PGA Tour titles and entry into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007.
And Strange was at his best in the U.S. Open, the one tournament that doubles as a left hook to the jaw. His insight on the national championship now shines through his words as an on-course commentator for Fox Sports, which is broadcasting this week’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach on California’s coastline.
Back in 1988, Strange, aggravated by being labeled for years as the best player never to win a major, finally KO’d that two-edged moniker by winning the U.S. Open in a playoff with Nick Faldo at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
And then he followed his maiden major by winning the U.S. Open at Oak Hill in New York the following year, joining just six others at the time as winners of consecutive Opens, the first to do so since Ben Hogan in 1951.
Strange had reached the top of the mountain for the second time. And then 1990 arrived, and a third trek toward the mountaintop took a toll.
Drive to be the best
For months leading into the U.S. Open at Medinah north of Chicago, Strange’s mind was chockful of thoughts about joining Willie Anderson as the only players to win the U.S. Open in three consecutive years.
“Because I was asked about it all the time,” said Strange, now 64, in a recent interview. “I played a lot of golf. I was playing 24, 25 times a year. When you played, you were asked about it. And I did talk on the phone to a lot of guys. It was a huge, huge deal to me.
“I had that little trophy for two years, but that was a big, big ask to win again. But I was just enough of a believer that I would have a chance. So I went into Medinah early, and I’d never done that before or since, and I played a lot of golf there. And the only peace I got in my run-up to it was when I was playing a tournament round. That’s where my focus was. When I was home and practicing I was thinking about it all the time.”
Strange missed just five of 56 fairways that week. After the second round, he changed putters and his 68 on Saturday got him to within two of the lead. But a bogey on the par-3 2nd on Sunday zapped him, and his 75 left him in a tie for 21st.
“I was two behind and I couldn’t afford to make any mistakes,” Strange said. “And on the second hole, I hit a 4-iron, and by the way, we lived with 3-, 4- and 5-irons back in my day. I hit it a little thin and came up short of the green and didn’t get it up and down. And I had (Greg) Norman and (Hale) Irwin up ahead of me going really well, and there were a lot of guys in the mix and somewhere, around 10 or 11, I came to realize that it wasn’t going to be my day.”
That U.S. Open took a lot out of Strange. He was 34 but never won on the PGA Tour again. During the ride to O’Hare International Airport that Sunday night, the flame within started to flicker.
“I never felt energy go out of me like that ever before,” Strange said. “I was disappointed, and I knew it was a great run, but right then and there, I had to give the trophy back and it was with me for two years. I used to call it my little buddy. I never got back that grind, that fire. Don’t get me wrong, I had periods where it was there. But it was never the same again. I’ve said it before, you only have so much energy, physically and mentally, to be the best.”
Koepka’s chance at three-peat
No one has been better in the past two editions of the U.S. Open than Brooks Koepka, who also has won the past two playings of the PGA Championship. Strange can relate to the run-up Koepka is facing. It started last year at Shinnecock on Long Island, where Koepka defended the title he won the year before at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, becoming the seventh player to win consecutive Opens and the first in 30 years.
Strange saw every shot of Koepka’s last round, when he held off Tommy Fleetwood by one and Dustin Johnson by two. Strange did the post-round interview, and Anderson’s name came up.
Anderson was born in North Berwick, Scotland, and immigrated to the United States when he was 16. He won the U.S. Open three consecutive times – in 1903 at Baltusrol in New Jersey, in 1904 at Glen View Club in Chicago and in 1905 at Myopia Hunt northeast of Boston.
“Brooks has a better chance of pulling off the three-peat than I did,” Strange said. “Because he is the ultimate modern-day player. And I say that with all due respect. He’s long off the tee, hits a lot of drivers off the tee. He drives it straight. He’s a wonderful iron player. He can putt. He has the complete game.
“He has a steep angle of attack, and he goes through the ball so well, so that helps him out of the rough. He hits shots in inclement weather, out of the rough, in the wind, when things aren’t ideal, and that separates him from so many others.”
And he has the ideal approach to battle the toughest test in golf.
“When you’re in the middle of trying to do something special, when you are playing well, the best thing to do is simplify everything. And that’s exactly what it looks like from what I hear with Brooks,” said Strange, who will be walking Pebble Beach’s fairways for Fox. “When he says it’s another round of golf, another day, another tournament, he’s exactly right in so many aspects.
“Now, it happens to be your national championship, so it means more. But you still have to go out there and play golf. And that’s what he’s said all along. His focus, his discipline, his concentration, is there at majors.
“He has it figured out. You bet he has a big chance to win it again.”