Curtis Strange's final approach shot of 1985, a nine-iron from the 18th fairway of the north course at Bardmoor Country Club in Florida, went, fittingly enough, into the hole. But as good as last year was for Strange, it wasn't perfect: The ball bounced out and came to rest 25 feet away.
Strange acknowledged the warm applause of the crowd at the J.C. Penney mixed team tournament with the appreciative smile he is flashing more and more easily, but—damn!—he wished that ball had stayed in the hole.
It was that kind of year for Strange, whose $542,321 eclipsed Tom Watson's 1980 record for one-year earnings by almost $12,000. Strange won three tournaments in 1985 and was named Player of the Year by the Golf Writers Association of America, but though he enjoyed the greatest success of his nine-year pro career, he may be remembered as much for one tournament he led and lost and for another he didn't even play in.
Strange had to endure the painful disappointment of losing the Masters in April, when he twice hit into water on closing holes. And then, when he skipped the British Open, a major that is coveted by nearly everyone else, he was stung by sharp criticism from the press. But he has never ducked controversy or challenge and he finished the year as aggressively in pursuit of victory as ever.
Until recently, Strange's aggressiveness was often a problem, but he has learned to channel it. Bill Rogers, a fellow pro and good friend who is trying to recapture his own drive, says almost enviously, "Curtis has more determination, more fire, more want than any player I've ever seen." Jim Thorpe says, "Curtis just won't take no for an answer."
Along with immense talent—his ability to play well while experimenting with different swing theories is legend on the tour—intense desire is the reason Strange is the decade's most steadily improving golfer. He is neither a powerful hitter nor a gifted putter, but he has no overt weaknesses and is a superb course manager, with a compact swing that repeats with assembly-line precision. Since 1980 he has had seven victories and more top 10 finishes—55—than anyone except Tom Kite and Watson. Only Strange, Watson and Craig Stadler have won at least $200,000 in each of the last six years.
That intensity about golf has been with Strange since he was an 8-year-old playing at the White Sands Country Club in Virginia Beach, where his father, Tom, was the pro. "I don't think I have hit a shot in the last six years where I haven't given 110 percent," says Strange in his rich Virginia drawl. "It's just not in me. Even if I'm 100 over par, I find myself trying. I don't know why. I just still try like hell."
His effort has gone largely unappreciated by the public, mostly because he never used to give any outward indication that he cared what people thought of him. His on-course moods seemed dark and, unlike temper flashers like Stadler or Lanny Wadkins, Strange rarely balances his obvious discomfort over a bad shot with even a little exultation after a good one. To fans and the press, he was a brooding Heath-cliff of the fairways.
"If I had anything to change, it would be the way I started out on the tour," says Strange. "I came out hotheaded, and the way people perceive you when you first come out is the way they might perceive you your whole career. Back then, I was out to prove myself as a player, not as a person. If I had projected better—taken the picture and made it brighter in the beginning—it would be brighter now."
Last January, Strange turned 30, got a new putter and set out on a hot streak. By March he had his game at a peak. At the Honda Classic he beat Peter Jacobsen in a playoff, but a decided pro-Jacobsen sentiment in the gallery and in the newspapers the next morning told him it wasn't a popular victory.