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.