Twenty years after his first of back-to-back U.S. Open wins, we reveal what made Curtis Strange tick

Twenty years after his first of back-to-back U.S. Open wins, we reveal what made Curtis Strange tick

"Was I hard on myself and others? Yeah," Strange says. "I was doing what I thought I needed to win."
Jeffery Salter

At the 1985 Panasoniclas Vegas Invitational, after closing the third round with a brain-cramp bogey, Curtis Strange, 30, stormed into the parking lot and made his worst swing of the day. His takeaway was perfect, but impact was a problem: flesh struck metal. “It was the darnedest thing,” Strange recalls. “The hood of my car came up and hit my fist.”

On Sunday, Strange blew off the doctor’s orders and won the event with a fractured right hand. He shot 66.

“Oh, it might have hurt a little,” he says now. “But what was I going to do? We had a tournament to play.”

A fleeting moment in a Hall of Fame career, the incident resonates as vintage Early Curtis, a precocious, prematurely gray talent who played the game in a way that must seem foreign to today’s pros: in a cloud of emotion, with a robopro’s obsession with perfection and a cyborg’s tolerance for pressure and pain.

At his peak, in the late 1980s, Strange was widely seen as the top — and testiest — player on Tour. “Fiery competitor.” “Determined grinder.” Cliches shadowed Strange like a Sunday gallery. His trip-wire temper, apparent in the press tent, also turned up in the tee box. During one of his two U.S. Open wins, he glared at a trigger-happy photographer and said, “Gimme a f—— break.” He was caustic and cold-blooded. He could carve your heart out with a lob wedge, and use the tattered organ as an impact bag.

But as proven by the penalty he took in the parking lot, Strange saved the roughest punishment for himself.

“Was I hard on myself and a few other people? Yeah,” says Strange, now 53. “But I was out there to win tournaments. I was doing what I thought I needed to do to win.”

All of his hallmarks — the steely nerve, the precise shotmaking, the capacity for self-abuse — were on display in 1988 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., where Strange won the first of his back-to-back U.S. Opens. Playing in the final group on Sunday, Strange conjured crunch-time magic with an up-and-down on 18 from a greenside bunker to salvage both par and a spot in a Monday playoff. But that night, thrashing sleepless in his cotton sheets, Strange dwelled on two front-nine bogeys and a ticklish three-putt on 17.

He’d already won plenty of cash and crowns, including the Memorial the month before, where Hale Irwin praised him as the “best player in the world.” But what he wanted was a major, a prize he hadn’t sniffed since the 1985 Masters, when he’d tossed away a Sunday lead by baptizing two balls in Rae’s Creek.

Bernhard Langer had benefited then. At Brookline, another European, the reigning British Open champion, Nick Faldo, stood in his way.

Giddy at the prospect, tabloid writers went headline-happy, casting the Monday match as a patriotic standoff. The Boston Tee Party. On one side, the British Empire. On the other, a defender of the commonwealth, a red-blooded American, right down to his Virginia drawl.

“I was nervous, anxious, butterflies from all the build-up,” Strange remembers of that sleepless night. “But I was too worried about the a–hole at the end of my own 5-iron to give much thought to all that other stuff.”

The “a–hole” triumphed 71-75, whipping Faldo in the same way Faldo whipped everyone else. Relentlessly. Remorselessly, with nine one-putts and pars rescued from right field at Fenway Park. He opened with a six-foot par save on the first, staggered Faldo with a 30-footer for birdie on the 13th to stretch his lead to three, and dealt the knockout blow by hammering a 2-iron to the 18th green. After tapping in for par, he kissed his wife, Sarah, paid tearful tribute to his late father, Tom, and phoned his brother, Allan. The next year, at Oak Hill, he won the U.S. Open again.

No one had turned the trick since Ben Hogan (1950 and ’51). And no one — not Jack, Arnie, Tiger — has pulled it off since. Then in 1990, at Medinah, Strange nearly nailed a trifecta, with a weekend run at his third straight title.

Golf has produced some historic pairings, but few were more impressive than the U.S. Open and Curtis Strange. “No disrespect to any of the other tournaments, but the Open was the one I always wanted,” Strange says. “It’s our national championship. It was the most important tournament in the world to me.”

A generation later, his speech remains sweetened by the South, but the man himself has mellowed, softened by time and experience. In the intervening years, the intensity cooled while the resume thinned. There were Ryder Cups (humility and heroics) and a stint in the tower as a respected commentator for ABC. But after 1989, he never won on Tour again.

Armchair analysts have furnished several theories. An equipment switch in 1990, inspired by a fat contract Strange signed with a Japanese clubmaker. (“That’s just silly,” Strange says. “I made that change in a day.”) A parting of ways with instructor Jimmy Ballard (a subject Strange would rather not discuss).

A better explanation is basic burnout.

“Looking back,” Strange says, “after Medinah, I left the tournament and never really regained my edge. Why? I don’t know. My kids were an age where family took precedence. But I’d also been going at it so hard and for so long. It’s difficult to keep that up. In golf, longevity is a blessing and a curse. The good news is, we can play forever. The bad news is, we can play forever.”

Says Jay Haas, a college teammate at Wake Forest and long-time friend: “It reminds me of what [British Open champion] Bill Rogers once said. There comes a point when you wonder whether the sacrifices are worth it. You want to slow down, relax, enjoy it more.”

Strange had been firing full-bore since boyhood. His father, Tom, a former Virginia state golf champ who qualified for seven U.S. Opens and died of cancer when Curtis was 14, owned the White Sands Country Club in Virginia Beach, where Strange and his identical twin Allan cut their teeth. Allan, who himself briefly played on Tour, matched Curtis in talent but not as a turf-gnawing range rat.

“Curtis was always practicing, playing, improving, and it wasn’t long before he leapfrogged everyone else,” Allan says. “He played the same way at age 14 as he did when he was 34. He’d go out for a round, and come back with a few less clubs in his bag.”

Those type-A traits followed Strange to Wake Forest, where he secured both team and individual titles with a 10-foot eagle putt on the final hole of the 1974 NCAA Championship. Off the course, he was one of the guys, a fraternity brother, drinking beers and beating golf balls from the Kappa Sig roof. But when he stepped into a tee box, Strange transformed.

“He was the most competitive guy I’d ever seen,” Haas says. “He wanted to beat you so badly. But what stood out even more was how hard he was on himself.”

Roommates on the road, Haas and Strange became close friends, balancing each other with opposing personalities: Haas relaxed and chatty, Strange spring-coiled. The combination made for comic moments. Once, on a car trip between tournaments, Strange was stewing in the back seat over putting problems, the offending flat-stick resting in his lap. “It was a beautiful Bulls Eye,” Haas recalls. “Probably worth a thousand bucks today.”

When Strange complained that the club had betrayed him, Haas played straight man. “I said, ‘You’re right. You should get rid of it.’ So he chucks it out the window of the moving car.”

Haas then told Strange he’d been kidding — the putter was fine. “You can’t print his response,” Haas says with a laugh.

In those days, Strange’s ferocity found expression on the fairways. He didn’t hit shots. He murdered them. “Spectacular,” Haas says. “The guy was 5-foot-11, 160 pounds soaking wet, but he was one of the longest hitters in the college game.” Later, on Tour, Strange shifted his approach, sacrificing distance for control — a style that played nicely at the Open.

By the time he got to Brookline, Strange had banked 14 Tour wins, along with enough prize money to cover his mortgage, a fishing boat and fines for salty language, which arrived as reliably as his phone bill. (“I guess I can’t get away with ‘goddamn’ on Thursdays anymore,” he once observed). One year, at Bay Hill, Strange unleashed a verbal tirade so blue that a volunteer complained, and Arnold Palmer saw fit to dress Strange down. (“Ungentlemanly behavior,” the King tutt-tutted.)

Strange was an equal-opportunity upbraider. Woe was the reporter who pestered him with a mindless question. But pity also the cameraman who tried to take a shot while Strange was taking his: He’d be threatened with procedures a sadistic proctologist wouldn’t recommend. Strange even teed off on a fan who’d snapped a picture mid-swing — in a practice round.

Says Strange’s friend, mental-game expert Bob Rotella: “Off the course, he was a sweetheart. People called him Hogan-esque, and in ways he was. He was on a mission to win championships. To play his best, he felt he had to get lost in his own world.”

Strange’s single-mindedness, Rotella says, combined with his work ethic, made him the perfect animal at the Open, which rewards resilience as much as crisp play. “But,” Rotella adds, “when you’re a perfectionist, you tend to have trouble forgiving yourself for mistakes.”

Strange’s single-mindedness, Rotella says, combined with his work ethic, made him the perfect animal at the Open, which rewards resilience as much as crisp play. “But,” Rotella adds, “when you’re a perfectionist, you tend to have trouble forgiving yourself for mistakes.”

Distrustful of shrink-speak, Strange obsessed instead about his swing.

“He was always thinking about it, trying new things,” says his brother, Allan. “He’d ask for swing tips from the cab driver on the way to the airport.”

Adds Haas: “We used to ask him, ‘Hey, Curtis. What did the Delta skycap think about your position at the top?'”

Whatever tips he picked up, they worked. Between 1986 and 1990, Strange spent 200 weeks in the top 10 of the World Ranking. He led the money list three times, and in 1988 became the first-ever Tour player to claim $1 million in prize money in a single year, this in an era when earning seven figures meant you’d done much more than make a half-dozen cuts.

At the 1988 Open, Strange had his A-game. (“Incredibly precise and deliberate,” says runner-up Faldo. “Like playing against myself.”) But the next year at Oak Hill Strange won through persistence, not pitiless pursuit. Starting the final round three shots behind Tom Kite, Strange parred the first 15 holes, then birdied the 16th (his first birdie in nearly two rounds). He closed with a 70, claiming his second Open as Kite stumbled to a 78.

Often overlooked is the feisty run that Strange made at a third-straight Open title. In 1990 at Medinah, however, something was amiss with his mechanics. “I was really doing it with smoke and mirrors,” Strange says. Nevertheless, by Saturday night, he’d clawed to within two shots of the lead.

“There was a lot of buzz going around about a possible third straight,” Strange says. “And I was just arrogant enough to think that I could do it. But I wasn’t playing well. I remember I hit a bad shot on the second and I knew right then that it wasn’t meant to be.” He finished tied for 21st, six strokes behind winner Hale Irwin.

The decade marked a period of gradual decline. Strange stayed in the top 100 on the money list, but that’s not enough for a man who’d round out his Tour career with 17 wins and $7.5 million in earnings. By 1997, encouraged by Jack Graham, a friend and a producer at ABC at the time, the fighter left the ring for the tower.

“It was an adjustment,” Strange says. “I’d work a long day, but feel like I hadn’t accomplished anything. I’d climb down from the tower and feel like I should go run five miles.”

To those who recognized him only by his fearsome reputation, Strange the TV broadcaster appeared to be the victim of a body-snatching: wry, self-effacing, verging on relaxed. It was merely his other side emerging. This was the man friends had known off-course for years. A hard-rocker gone acoustic. Curtis Strange, unplugged.

An edge remained, of course. When viewers needled him about his accent (“Believe it or not,” Strange says, “I got a letter from a guy in Texas complaining about my Southern drawl!”), Strange spent hours agonizing over annunciation.

In the booth, Strange glimpsed the flip-side of the player-press dynamic, and learned to take criticism in stride. “We’re so sensitive out here,” he says. “We’re human. I came to realize that the guys saying and writing things are just doing their jobs.”

But what really lends perspective is life itself. Since leaving ABC in 2003 after the network failed to offer him the contract he sought, Strange has spent ample time fishing and with family. He’s watched his wife, Sarah, his former college sweetheart, overcome breast cancer. He’s had time to relax, reflect, compete. Never one for casual rounds (“I don’t play jolly golf,” Strange says), he’s returned as a full-timer on the Champions Tour. He hasn’t won yet. “But,” Haas says, “it’s just a matter of time.”

Strange’s fire still burns, but it’s more Zippo lighter than flamethrower. When a camera clicks at an inconvenient moment, Strange keeps quiet.

Would he like to take a mulligan on anything he’s done? “No regrets,” Strange says. “I worked hard and gave it my all every time out there. If I could change anything, I’d probably smile more, acknowledge the fans more, try to create a better image.”

He pauses, chuckles. “Then again, I’m not sure I would.”

Q and … Ehh!
3 questions with the kinder, gentler Curtis

How do you interview Curtis Strange? Very carefully, as we found out in this brief exchange from our Q&A with the two-time Open champ:

Q: Who’s in your dream foursome?

A: Now, you were actually doing OK until you asked me that!

Q: What drove you to succeed? Your father? Competition with your brother? What makes you tick?

A: Man, you all come up with some bulls— questions.

Q: What’s your favorite course?

A: Jeez, can’t you come up with something more original?

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