"That hurt," says Strange. "They were almost saying, 'Oh hell, he is going to be a good player. Now we've got to put up with the jerk. Wish he'd stay in the background.'
"For a little while I thought, why am I beating my brains out to win? I can make a very good living without finishing first." When he expressed such sentiments, his wife, Sarah, asked, "Does this mean you aren't going to win again?" The answer came with a victory at the Panasonic Invitational in Las Vegas. In March alone he won $289,654, and things were going great again. Sarah gave birth to their second son, David, and Curtis went off to Augusta the next week.
He opened with a dismal 80 and had plane reservations home for Friday afternoon, thinking he would surely miss the cut. But he shot 65, in fact played the next 45 holes in spectacular fashion, 15 under par, to take a four-stroke lead with nine holes to play on Sunday. He got a bit shaky around Amen Corner, and with a two-shot lead, he hit a four-wood into the creek on 13. At 15 he hit a four-iron into the water that guards the green and finished two shots behind the late-charging winner, Bernhard Langer. Even with months to reflect, Strange says, "I'd take out the same clubs again."
Everyone expected him to throw his clubs into Rae's Creek and stomp off, but Strange sensed that he would be forever judged by the way he handled this defeat. "I figured, let's not mess this up," he says, and for two hours he graciously answered questions in the press room. The next morning he read, among other things: "Curtis Strange lost another golf tournament yesterday and won a bunch of new friends."
"Part of me wishes nobody had ever gotten to see that side of me, because I wish I had won," says Strange. "But I'm glad people got to see someone other than the hard-core Curtis Strange."
The "someone other" is a modest, relaxed guy with a wife and two boys and an easy way with a beer. At home in Williamsburg, Va., his friends include fishing buddies with nicknames like Chicken and Bubba.
But on or off the course, Strange is also strong-willed. He showed it by not going to the British Open in July when the whole golf world, which measures greatness more by majors than money, expected him to be there. He defended his decision to stay home, saying he was tired and didn't want to be away from his family. But the following week he crossed the Atlantic to play in the Dutch Open, an event with little prestige that bolsters its otherwise weak field by paying stars like Strange fat fees to appear. Even his agent, Hughes Norton, says flatly, "Curtis should have played [the British Open]." But Strange refuses to apologize or second-guess himself. "My reasons are still my reasons," he says.
Of his demeanor, Strange says, "I get mad because, gosh damn, that's what I'm supposed to do. I'm not supposed to shrug it off and say, 'O.K., another bad shot,' like it seems a lot of people do out here. My game is centered on not having lapses. If I have a lapse, that's when I get mad. It's not all fun and games. Nobody said it was supposed to be."
And it wasn't fun when he started. He had won the NCAA individual title as a Wake Forest freshman in 1974, but he failed his first qualifying school by a stroke in 1976. He qualified on his second try in 1977.
"If I was going to fail, I was going to do it with both barrels loaded and blasting away," says Strange. "I told a lot of people to get the hell out of my way."