For a while at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic last week it looked as if the Curtis Strange of old had resurfaced, rearing his prematurely gray head. He jammed clubs back into his bag with a vengeance, whacked with malice at little wooden tees and yelled at two fans in the gallery who dared to cheer him on. "There are other guys playing here, you know," Strange snapped. "So just nip it over there."
His name was even atop the leader board last Thursday after 36 holes, with a 13-under-par 131. But just as suddenly as it had appeared, that shimmering image of a former great was gone. Strange's game didn't exactly self-destruct at the Hope; it merely slipped from sizzling to average. And as his name slid from among the contenders'—he finished the five-round tournament at 18 under par but 17 shots behind runaway winner Tom Kite—Strange stopped abusing his clubs and his fans. He even paused to chat. During Saturday's fourth round, while waiting for the foursome ahead of him, Strange actually lay on the grass, using his bag as a pillow.
"It's going to take some time to get back to the point where I get somebody down and then step on him," he later said. "That's what I'm missing."
Strange won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1988 and '89, but he hasn't won a tournament since that 1989 victory. He blames his poor play on an unnamed malady that has affected him for more than two years. Exhausted and lethargic, he became so disoriented at times that he didn't know where he was. Worse yet, Strange says he didn't care.
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., could find nothing medically wrong with him, so Strange was left to cure himself. "It was bad," he says. "I didn't feel like practicing, so I didn't play well. Because I wasn't playing well, I had an excuse not to leave home. So I stayed home. And it got easier to keep on staying home."
Strange entered only 17 Tour events last year, squeezing them in between fishing trips and football games he attended with his wife, Sarah, and two sons, Tom, now 10, and David, seven. He enjoyed the time with his family so much that he wasn't sure if he would ever again play a full schedule. However, the allure of staying home faded. Says Strange, "My kids finally said, 'Dad, don't you have any golf to play? Somewhere to go? Some kind of life?' And I got tired of being a spectator. I realized how lucky I am that what I do for a living is my hobby and my love."
Last fall, with the support of his family and a sports psychologist, Strange began his comeback. It started with conditioning—running five miles every morning—and then moved to the course, where he worked long hours and changed his swing. Strange plans to play at least 24 tournaments this year. In January, before heading out for the first of four straight, culminating at the Hope, he gathered his family and announced, "To hell with you all, I'm going to play."
"I know it sounds bad that way," Strange says, "but Sarah and I have resigned ourselves to the fact that I'm going to play this game."
But can Strange reach the championship level he once enjoyed? "I don't know, but I know I want to try," he says. "Right now that's good enough."