BROOKLINE, MASSACHUSETTS | Before Curtis Strange could win two U.S. Open championships in a row, he had to win the first one.
That meant saving par from the cavernous bunker fronting the 18th green at The Country Club in the final round in 1988, knowing his immediate prize would be an 18-hole playoff with Nick Faldo.
Strange saved that Sunday afternoon par and won the playoff the next day. One year later, he won a second U.S. Open at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, his 17th and final PGA Tour victory en route to the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Sitting in The Country Club’s yellow clubhouse last week, the 18th green just below him, Strange, 67, did his best to explain what it feels like in that moment, knowing he was one swing away from the biggest day in his professional life to that point.
“I get asked that a lot, and I don’t have an answer,” Strange said. “I kind of remember going through the process and I took a deep breath. The greatest thing ever invented – taking a deep breath – and realize that you have done this a million times, you son of a gun, and just go out there and do it.”
An All-American golfer at Wake Forest, Strange came to know Arnold Palmer through their shared alma mater. One year before his first U.S. Open victory, Strange attended a Rolex dinner honoring Palmer, setting in motion a long relationship between Strange and one of the world’s most admired brands.
Likewise, Strange leaned on Palmer for guidance over the years, taking his advice to heart, particularly in U.S. Opens.
“I spoke to Arnold about it, and he said it’s simple: just play; play your game, as that’s all you can do,” Strange said. “Put it on the fairway, and I did that and I did, drove it relatively straight, but a lot of guys drove it straight, but a lot of guys were beaten on the first tee.
“You have a guy like Bruce Lietzke back in the day who had all the talent in the world to win a U.S. Open but hated the place and didn’t even want to play. In the last couple of years when he was playing, he didn’t even try and qualify. He had all the talent and drove the ball well, but he didn’t want to play.”
“I really believe that you learn how to play in the U.S. Open, and you first mentally have to realize that it’s not a birdie fest out here. You are not going to make 15 or 20 birdies, so you have to be more patient in that regard, and then when you do miss, you know you can’t give up on the hole ever.”
That’s what the U.S. Open can do to players. By design, it tends to put players on the defensive, protecting against the big mistake. In most weeks on the PGA Tour, players can force the action, firing at flagsticks knowing the penalty for a miss isn’t likely to be devastating.
It was different last week at The Country Club, where thick rough and small greens demanded precision over power. That played to Strange’s strengths.
“My first (1977 U.S. Open) was at Southern Hills, and I was overwhelmed by everything,” Strange said. “I really believe that you learn how to play in the U.S. Open, and you first mentally have to realize that it’s not a birdie fest out here. You are not going to make 15 or 20 birdies, so you have to be more patient in that regard, and then when you do miss, you know you can’t give up on the hole ever.
“I am not going to say that we never give up, but frustration will play a part. You can’t do that (in U.S. Opens) because if you still have two shots to make par, you still have a chance to make par, and I don’t care where it’s from.
“Mentally it’s a different perspective. I just think you have to back off, and again putting it on the fairway is the number-one priority for every hole, and if that means not hitting driver, then don’t hit driver. The guys are so good – and I thought we were, too – but if you have to hit a little longer club in the hole, then what difference does it make as long as it is on the short grass.”
Finally, Strange said, it comes down to a player’s self-belief. In 1988, Strange three-putted the 17th hole at Brookline on Sunday to squander a one-stroke lead. Needing a par at the finishing hole to force an 18-hole playoff, Strange hit a 7-iron approach shot that came up short, leaving him with an uphill bunker shot that he needed to get up and down.
There was, as the saying goes, no place to hide.
“It’s what it comes down to, and you know how to go and do it,” Strange said. “It wasn’t the toughest shot by any stretch, but it was the most important shot I have ever hit of my life.”
Rolex’s relationship with the USGA and the U.S. Open began in 1980 and Rolex is the Official Timekeeper and Official Partner of the U.S. Open.