U.S. Open wins: 1988 at The Country Club, 1989 at Oak Hill
Fact: First (and last) to win back-to-back Opens since Ben Hogan in 1950-’51.
The Open was a different game in our day. There was a lot of rough right off the fairways. We couldn’t hit it onto the green from there most of the time. So it was a priority to put it in the fairway and hit as many greens as you could. “No s---,” you’re thinking. But you had to play more conservatively on your second shots, and that’s easier said than done. Par used to be a good score on every hole at the Open. I don’t know if that’s still the case.
You have to take a different mentality into the Open. You have to be so much more patient. Instead of being upset that you’ve got an eight-footer for par like you would be at the Honda Classic, you’ve got to give it your best to make the putt. It’s hugely mental.
A month before the ’88 Open, at the Memorial, Hale Irwin said I was the best player in the world. I didn’t pay it any mind other than, “Thanks, Hale, that means a lot coming from you.” You’ve still got to do your job the next day. Winning that Open, over Nick Faldo in the Monday playoff, didn’t change the way I viewed myself. But for everybody else looking in, it did.
When you turn the corner and head to the Open’s last nine holes, there’s an enormous amount of pressure. Mistakes are magnified and you have to accept that. You hate to come close and not pull through because you don’t get that many opportunities.
In 1989, I was walking down Oak Hill’s tenth hole on Sunday when I got a thumbs-up sign from a golf writer. That meant I had the lead. The adrenaline rushed through my body like nothing I’d ever felt before. When I birdied the 16th, I went up by two shots and felt like I was in good shape—as long as I didn’t throw up on my shoes.
There’s a picture of me playing the bunker shot on the 72nd hole. It’s this great panoramic scene—it’s the last hole of the Open, and I look like a midget out there in the bunker surrounded by all these people. Talk about being on a stage.
In 1989, I had no idea who the last player to win back-to-back Opens was until the media brought it up when I had the second-round lead. When I won and said on camera, “Move over, Ben,” it was absolutely spontaneous. I meant it to be complimentary. I had the highest regard for Ben Hogan.
I was dumbfounded by winning at Oak Hill. I was just in the right place at the right time, which happens at the Open. Suddenly, Ben Hogan and I were two names people were talking about, which is ridiculous as far as ability and accomplishments. It’s nice that I did something that somebody else did a long time ago. The more years that pass, the more proud I am of it.
I said, “This one’s for my dad,” when I won my first open at The Country Club. That line first occurred to me at Augusta in 1985, when I had a chance to win and didn’t.
I went back to The Country Club last fall, the first time I’d been back. It’s a hell of a course. It’s hard. I didn’t remember it being that hard. What a place. It didn’t disappoint. A lot of memories came rushing back. They had some old pictures hanging in the locker room, and that was nice, too—if you can put up with those tight red pants. Geez!