Tuesday, 5 April 2016

1985 US Masters: Curtis Strange

Bernhard Langer may well have won his first major at the 1985 US Masters, but he had to share a lot of the headlines with the man who finished joint runner-up. For Curtis Strange, April 11-14, 1985 was quite an experience.

"It would have been a helluva story, wouldn't it?" Oh yes. The words of Curtis Strange in the immediate aftermath of the 1985 US Masters reflected a roller coaster of a tournament for the 30-year-old American. From zero on Thursday to potential hero on Sunday, before drowning in a watery grave on the famous back nine at Augusta. A Leicester City style story, but without the happy ending for the man leading the US money list in 1985. An experience that would live with Strange for years to come, even after he broke his major duck in 1988.

Strange's Sunday woes seemed a million miles away on the opening day of the Masters. Walking off the 18th and signing for an +8 total of 80, Strange booked a plane reservation back to Virginia, his chances of making the cut remote. After all, when you three-putt six times and find yourself 12 shots off the lead, on a day when 26 players shot par or better, then you might as well make plans to go back home and spend some time with your wife and new born child. Of course, Strange could still make the cut, but could he really get back into contention for the green jacket? Stranger things have happened.

The comeback truly teed off on Friday. A birdie at 2 was encouraging, but when Strange eagled the third after his 137-yard eight-iron dropped in, the signs were already there that things were about to get a whole lot better for the man who was mentally already on the plane home. Another birdie at 4 kept the ball rolling, and four consecutive birdies through Amen Corner and the 14th helped Strange card a 65 and finish the day just five off the leaders Tom Watson, Craig Stadler and Payne Stewart.

There was a slight blot on the scorecard, Strange bogeying the 15th after a bad drive, yet his real pain with this hole could wait until Sunday. For now, Strange had somehow hauled himself back into the mix, and was beginning to talk with a little more optimism.

"Winning was beyond my wildest dreams," Strange commented on the Friday. "Now, it's still tough to fantasise about a green jacket. If I shoot another 65, we'll talk about it." Strange didn't quite have his wish on Saturday, but a 68 maintained the momentum, and with just a round to go in the 1985 Masters, the man who had shot an opening 80 was now just a shot behind leader Ray Floyd.

Strange continued his charge on the Sunday. By the second he was level with Floyd, and another birdie on the 4th gave him the outright lead. Two more birdies saw Strange complete the outward nine in 32 shots, and as the players turned for home, the American held a four shot lead and was on the brink of the greatest comeback since Lazarus (© Sid Waddell).

The back nine on the final day at Augusta does funny things to men, though, and a dropped shot on 10 - his first bogey in 26 holes - may have got Strange's supporters worried. But a birdie on the par 3 12th got the wheels back on track, and with just six holes left to play, Strange was three shots in front of Bernhard Langer and sitting pretty.

"At that time, I had everyone else thinking about second place," Strange later related. "But, gosh, it always happens here." The fun and games really started on the 13th. A fine drive put Strange 208 yards from the green, leaving him with the option of laying up or going for the green. "It's not in my blood to lay up like that," Strange said. "I'm thinking that if I can make four, I'll increase the lead. If I had made four, this golf tournament would have been a different story." In hindsight he may have wished he had played it safe.

Finding Rae's Creek with his second, Strange got to the green and pondered whether or not he could get away without a penalty drop. Reaching into his golf bag to get dressed in his full waterproofs, Strange hoped to play a bunker style shot and prevent any serious damage. But his attempted shot from the creek hit the bank, and Strange was lucky that his ball rolled back in to a playable lie. A bogey followed, and Strange's lead was now down to just a single shot. Squeaky bum time was well and truly beginning.

The 15th hole would play a huge part in deciding the destiny of the 1985 Masters. A Langer birdie at the par five saw the German draw level, and as Strange stood over his 200-yard second shot at the same hole with a four-iron in his hands, a key moment in the tournament had arrived. Strange appeared to strike the ball reasonably well, but the look of concern on his face told a story. His ball came up well short of the green and the tell-tale ripples confirmed to everyone that Strange had once again fluffed his lines. His tournament total of -2 on the par fives was dwarfed by Langer's -9, with Strange's angst on 13 and 15 in the final round highlighting his Achilles Heel.

"If I went back out there right now, I'd hit the same shot and hope that I hit it as well," Strange told the press afterwards. "My caddie said the wind died a little bit. But I was standing there after I hit it, thinking I'd make four at the worst." His bogey gave Langer the lead for the first time on the day, and now Strange was playing catch up once more. If you had given him the chance of clawing back a one shot deficit with three to play on the Thursday evening then Strange would surely have bitten your hand off, but come that Sunday night the man was going through mental torture.

Langer looked to have sealed the deal at the 17th, a birdie pushing him two in front and seemingly placing one of his arms in the green jacket. Yet nerves were being fully stretched on that Sunday, and a poor second at the last led to Langer dropping a shot and giving hope to Strange following behind. In fairness the American did compose himself, coming close to a birdie at 16, and doing well to save par at the 17th. Yet another poor approach shot at the last put paid to any hopes of redemption for Strange. The dream had turned into a nightmare.

"I guess the Miracle of '85, or whatever you want to call it, didn't happen," Strange joked afterwards, although he also admitted that his experience on that Sunday would leave him upset and hurt for years. "It would have been something to win here after shooting 80." Incredibly Strange had put himself into a fantastic position to pull off the impossible; four in front with nine to play; three in front on the 13th tee; level with Langer as he walked down the 15th. But it just wasn't meant to be, and Strange would have to live with the choker tag for years to come.

In fact, Strange was up front about his experience on his return to Augusta in 1986, using the expression "choking like a dog" to describe how he coped with the pressure cooker situation on that final Sunday. He spent the year constantly dealing with the cloud hanging over him, as friends and fellow pros tried to avoid the elephant in the room. One player did have the courage to broach the topic with Strange, though. Someone who you would definitely listen to when it came to the matter of winning majors.

Jack Nicklaus told him at the Tournament of Champions that the ordeal would either be the making of Strange or prove detrimental to his career. Luckily for Strange, the collapse did not prevent him from becoming a two-time major winner, and topping the US Money List in 1985, 1987 and 1988. But his Masters capitulation in 1985 was never far from his mind.

Indeed, before the 1989 Masters he was still being asked about that fateful April day in 1985. "Winning the US Open didn't make me feel any better about 1985. No way. I'm supposed to win when I have a four-shot lead like I had. I failed to pull off the shots I had to make, and that's really what`s sticking in my craw. I still feel like I should have won."

"Everyone remembers who won," Strange also pointed out. "No one remembers who didn't finish well and ended up second or third." Generally that sentiment is true in sport, but there are occasions where people really do remember the likes of Sanders and van de Velde rather than the victors.

Yet, win or lose, Curtis Strange was destined to be the major talking point with regards to the 1985 US Masters story. Either the greatest comeback or a complete choke. Those are the harsh realities with sport. At least Strange would experience a major win, unlike some of the other unfortunate examples in golf history. But deep down he will probably always think about the one that got away.

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