To his core, Curtis Strange is golf. The son of a beloved head pro, Curtis first held a club when he was 7 and probably didn’t let go for the next three decades. His college choice was Arnold Palmer’s alma mater — Wake Forest — and the disdain for miscues was legendary.
Said the youngest of the famed Harmon brothers, Billy: “Nobody hated to make bogey more than Curtis Strange.”
But before Tom Strange died of cancer far too young (39), he made sure his 14-year-old twin sons, Curtis and Allan, would be more than just competitive players. They’d also respect the game’s decorum, understand the responsibility they shouldered, and treat the game’s history with reverence.
In other words, there is no chance that the epic story of Francis Ouimet would ever be slighted. It would remain, in Curtis Strange’s view, arguably the greatest golf story ever.
Yet, to this Virginia-born golfer who could melt a glacier with his stare, what he did 75 years after Ouimet on the same stage resonated.
“The greatest memory I have is how the Bostonians adopted this Southern boy,” Strange said. “I’m indebted to them and I love them to death. I couldn’t have written a better script.”
The climax to the 1988 US Open script, of course, is well-documented: How on Sunday at The Country Club, Strange, then 33, got it up and down from a bunker at the 72nd hole to tie Nick Faldo at 6-under-par 278, then on Monday won the head-to-head playoff, 71-75.
But the sidelights and sidebars to that unforgettable week form the most indelible memories for Strange.
“His record is awfully good of late, but he hasn’t won the major.”
— Jack Nicklaus
When Strange came home in 33 to shoot 67 and rally past Hale Irwin to win the Memorial on May 29, 1988, this thing about never having won a major tempered the enthusiasm of his second win of the season.
“It’s surprising to me that he hasn’t yet,” said Nicklaus, who is naturally enamored with majors. He owns 18 of them.
Irwin acknowledged the asterisk on Strange’s résumé but chose a positive spin. He pointed to Strange’s 1985 and 1987 seasons, both three-win campaigns that established records for prize money — $542,321 and $925,941.
“I’ll match his record with anybody’s,” Irwin said. “Someday, he’s going to rack up those majors.”
That it happened just three weeks later in pulsating sunshine at The Country Club had nothing to do with any sort of motivation ignited by Nicklaus or Irwin. Rather, it was owed to a time in his life when Strange had total ownership of his game.
“It’s not a perfect world, but it was a perfect scenario for me,” said Strange, who was smitten with the US Open.
His father had brought home memorabilia from his six US Opens — three before the twins were born, three after — including 1967, when he tied for 48th place at Baltusrol.
“In our house, the US Open always meant a great deal,” said Strange, who had played nicely in a handful of US Opens, notably at Winged Foot in 1984 (third) and The Olympic Club in ‘87 (T-4).
Earlier in ‘88, Strange had been T-21 in the Masters, T-7 at Hilton Head, then he stepped up and beat Greg Norman in a playoff in Houston. The win at the Memorial punctuated his demeanor.
“My confidence was riding high,” Strange said. “I was building, but I always felt you had to let the momentum come to you.”
Strange saw The Country Club for the first time on Monday, June 13, 1988, and nodded his approval.
“Players loved the flow of the course, the tee-to-green look,” he said. “It was not overly long. I knew I had to put the ball in the fairway and stay below the hole.”
“He was standing between me and the trophy.”
— Curtis Strange, about his playoff opponent, Nick Faldo
Hard to believe if you follow golf these days, but in 1988 the top of the world rankings was dominated by international players. It had been that way since 1986 and it wouldn’t be till Fred Couples in 1992 that an American became No. 1 again.
This rankled America’s best players, Strange among them, and when the US Open came to Brookline, the top four names in the world order were Norman, an Australian; Sandy Lyle, a Scotsman; Bernhard Langer, a German; and Seve Ballesteros, the iconic Spaniard.
“I feel a little bit like [boxer] Duane Bobick or something,” Strange bristled to reporters who cited his ranking of No. 5 and called him The Great American Hope.
But after 72 holes, Strange, the American, was tied with Faldo, the Englishman and reigning British Open champion, and the story line was cemented.
“I woke up [Monday] morning and a Boston paper had a headline saying ‘Boston Tee Party’ so, hell, yeah, I knew about the angle,” Strange said. “And I knew the crowd would be on my side.”
“Look at Curtis, he’s preparing like I do. He’s drinking a beer.”
— what fans standing around the putting green might have said before the playoff
Allan Strange crossing paths with his brother at a golf tournament wasn’t new. Heck, they once were in the same pairing at the 1976 NCAA championships, Curtis for Wake Forest, Allan for East Tennessee State.
There was a brief fling with the PGA Tour for Allan Strange (in 1981, he played in 16 tournaments and won just $7,484), but he chose to go into the financial world back in Virginia.
Allan often was mistaken for Curtis when he’d show up at a tournament, “but then he stopped coming because he said, ‘Every time I show up, you don’t play well,’ ” Curtis laughed.
The twins’ uncle, Jordan Ball, figured it was a no-brainer for an impromptu trip to Boston for the Monday playoff. It also made sense to put Allan behind the wheel of the rental.
“The guard [at TCC] sees my brother and waves him in,” Strange said. “Says, ‘Have a great day, Curtis. Beat his ass.’ ”
About two hours before the playoff, Allan Strange and friends were enjoying a few cold beers — much to the shock of fans who thought it was Curtis.
“People are probably looking at my brother and thinking, ‘Curtis has no chance,’ ” Strange said.
Thanks to Jerry Pate, then on the ABC broadcast crew, Allan Strange walked inside the ropes for the back nine and had a front-row seat to his twin brother’s epic win.
Curtis suspects that the spirit of Tom Strange walked along, too.
“I felt like Jim Valvano.”
— Curtis Strange
It was vintage Strange in Monday’s playoff, as he relentlessly found the fairway (11 of 15, including 6 of the last 7) and never trailed. He bogeyed the par-4 fourth and was tied with Faldo, each of them 1 over, but Strange birdied the fifth and was ahead from there on.
Bogeys on five of the final eight holes by Faldo enabled Strange to employ his workmanlike game and bask in the sunshine. He had rock-solid pars at the par-3 16th and par-4 17th, then blistered a 2-iron into the fairway at 18.
USGA officials allowed fans to fall in behind players up the final hole, and there was a classic photo in the Globe of Strange holding up his right hand to shield his eyes from the sun. He is wearing a smile, but not a hat.
“I will never, ever forget that walk up 18,” he said.
When it was official and his level-par 71 had easily beaten Faldo’s 4-over round, “I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know who to hug,” said Strange, adding that it reminded him of the North Carolina State men’s basketball coach after the NCAA title game in 1983.
“Chris Berman was holding his own camera. I will never forget that.”
— Curtis Strange
Ah, times were different 34 years ago — and not just because Strange used 2- and 3- and 4-irons to hit par-4 greens, received a winner’s check for a mere $180,000, and wasn’t trending on Twitter.
There was also the post-round interview with ESPN when Chris Berman was pretty much a one-man band “and then had to drive the footage to Bristol [Connecticut],” Strange laughed.
Then there was the “now what?” moment when Strange and his wife, Sarah, looked at the trophy and realized there would not be a wild celebration because on Tuesday they were headed from Boston to play in the French Open.
And when he arrived in Chantilly, guess who took part in a Wednesday pro-am clinic? Strange and Faldo.
Later in 1988, Strange won the Nabisco Championship and became the became the first player to surpass $1 million in prize money in a season.
The following summer at Oak Hill CC in Rochester, N.Y., Strange became the first player since Ben Hogan in 1950-51 to win back-to-back US Opens. He was 34, seemingly in the prime of his career, but surprisingly it would be his final PGA Tour win.
Or maybe not surprisingly, given how much passion and commitment Strange had poured into his career.
His 1979-89 stretch was remarkable golf: 17 wins in 297 tournaments, three times leading the money list, and an average of 27 tournaments per season (plus a lot of appearance-fee trips overseas). Few players in that generation grinded like Strange, who missed an average of just 5.27 cuts a year.
But it’s what cannot be measured that factored most — how much time Strange spent away from home. If it’s as simple as this, that he climbed to the top of the mountain in his golf career and realized there was more to life, then offer a tip of the cap to a job well done.
But remember, it was that walk down the 18th fairway at The Country Club that took him to the top of the mountain.
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