Monday, 10 June 2013

1988 US Open: Curtis Strange

Sunday April 14, 1985: As Curtis Strange walks to the 10th tee at Augusta, he is on the brink of one of the most remarkable sporting comebacks ever. After carding a disastrous first round 80, Strange bounced back with rounds of 65 and 68, and a front nine of 32 (-4) on the Sunday left him four shots clear of the field and in touching distance of his first major. But just as he appears to have one arm in the green jacket, he capitulates on the last six holes, finding water at both 13 and 15, and eventually finishing two shots behind winner Bernhard Langer. Crushing doesn't even come close to describing it.

Fortunately Strange took the first part of Jack Nicklaus's advice on board - it will either help you or prove detrimental to you - and tried as hard as possible to put his Augusta nightmare behind him. In 1985 and 1987 he topped the American money list, and many in his home country were of the opinion that towards the late 1980s he was the best golfer in the world. One thing was indisputable; Strange was at the time, one of the finest golfers to have never won a major championship, and until he got that monkey off his back, and in particular that final day choke at Augusta, then the doubters would remain.

Strange certainly came from a golfing family. His dad Tom was a club professional, and Curtis and his twin brother Allan both started playing the game aged just seven. Both brothers would turn professional and play on the PGA Tour, but tragically their mentor would not be present to witness the fruits of his devotion; Tom died aged 38, due to cancer of the lymph nodes. Inevitably, his dad was always in his thoughts, and come the Monday of the 1988 US Open, Strange would dedicate his victory to Tom.

American golf was unusually suffering from a crisis in confidence in 1988. After losing their first ever Ryder Cup on home soil the previous year, Sandy Lyle's win at Augusta added weight to the argument that the balance in world golf was steadily shifting. The era of Nicklaus and Watson was slowly drawing to an end, and although Americans would continue to win majors through the likes of Larry Mize, Scott Simpson, and Larry Nelson in 1987, the search for an American superstar to rank alongside the greats of the past seemed to draw a blank.

The main contenders from a European perspective were the usual suspects. Seve Ballesteros had won the Westchester Classic the week before, beating Greg Norman, Ken Green and David Frost in a play-off; although Sandy Lyle had missed the cut in Rye, he had already won the Masters in April; and Nick Faldo was hoping to emulate Tony Jacklin's achievement of 1969/70 in holding both British and US Open trophies simultaneously.

Faldo was as good as 40/1 with City Index according to the Daily Express, extremely tasty odds at the time, especially seeing how coach David Leadbetter had helped turn his pupil into a golfing machine. The favourites overall were Ballesteros and Australia's Greg Norman at 8/1, the Great White Shark, like many, mightily impressed with the fairness and condition of the Brookline Country Club: "This course is the best I have ever seen set up for the US Open". With a mini-heatwave predicted for periods of the play between June 16-20 (and 21 too), the stage was set for an 88th US Open to remember.

Brookline was not adverse to the odd moment of drama. In 1913, amateur Francis Ouimet had restored American pride by taking on and defeating British legends Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, winning the US Open courtesy of an 18 hole play-off. Such was the fairytale behind the reality, that Ouimet's triumph was given the Disney treatment in 2005 in the film The Greatest Game Ever Played, and you could do a lot worse things with your time than reading the book which the film was adapted from by Mark Frost. A feelgood story, even if my birthplace normally precludes me from celebrating any American success at the expense of a Brit. Definitely a happier outcome than that infamous Sunday afternoon involving Justin Leonard and that putt in 1999.

The first round would see Lyle set the early pace, along with Americans Mike Nicolette and Bob Gilder. Lyle's 68 (-3) included a chip-in at 11, and birdies at the tricky finishing holes of 16 and 18, and it would appear that after his missed cut the week before, the extra coaching sessions that had been put in with his new coach Jimmy Ballard had paid dividends, although the unusual kindness of this US Open course at Brookline was emphasised in Lyle's round in which he missed seven fairways from the tee.

A further shot back were former major winners in Mize, Simpson, and Ballesteros, who had single-putted eleven greens in typical Seve fashion. They were joined by Paul Azinger and Dick Mast, but for Norman and Faldo things were not looking so good. Faldo played solid golf, yet his 72 was a disappointing reward, and although he was only four shots off the lead, he would need a turn in fortunes on the greens to mount a major challenge. Norman's 74 would soon be forgotten though, as during round two he was forced to withdraw from the tournament after injuring his wrist on the 9th hole.

Strange, aided by an eagle at the 14th, was nicely placed with a couple of tough Americans in Lanny Wadkins and Craig Stadler on 70, and on a Friday of low scoring, it would be very much an American day, albeit with one notable exception. Strange's round of 67 was not even the best of the day, Simpson's superb 66 giving him the halfway lead in the tournament at seven-under-par, and fellow countrymen Mize, D.A. Weibring, Steve Pate, Gilder, Fred Couples, Joey Sindelar, Jay Haas, Bob Tway, Tom Kite, John Cook, David Edwards, Mark Calcavecchia and Nelson all shot sub-70 rounds, proving that although the American game may have been devoid of an all-conquering hero, that a broad pool of talent did exist.

For Faldo, Friday would also be a low-scoring day. His 67, including three birdies in the opening five holes, didn't make a dent on his overall deficit (he was still four behind Simpson), but it gave note that he was dangerously working through the gears. "Yesterday I was not rewarded for all my good shots, but today I was. I'm very pleased at the way I played in to be just four shots back in theory at this stage is nothing," commented Faldo, and it would now seem that any non-American hopes of a US Open win lay squarely at the door of the Englishman and Lyle, who was also four shots off the lead, after shooting a level-par 71.

Ballesteros' 74 on such a prosperous day, looked harmful to his chances of back-to-back wins on the US tour, and so it would prove over the weekend, as scores of 72 and 73 saw the Spaniard finish way down in the field in a tie 32nd place. At least Ballesteros made the cut though, as his Ryder Cup team-mate Bernhard Langer missed out, with other notable absentees from the weekend being Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, and Gary Player.

The heatwave finally broke on the Saturday, making way for thunder and lightening, bringing with it a hold-up in play of an hour. The cooler and wetter conditions did not deter Strange though who at one point progressed to nine-under-par, before bogeys on 16 and 17 brought him slightly back to the field. A brave up and down from the greenside bunker at the last prevented any further damage, Strange's three round total of 206 giving him a one shot lead over Simpson (72), Gilder (70), and Faldo (68). Gilder had temporarily tied Strange at the top of the leaderboard, only for a double bogey at 15 to stop him in his tracks. Simpson also suffered a double bogey at the 5th and, like the weather, he found his putter considerably colder than the previous day.

Round of the day was Mark O'Meara's 66, which put him back into contention, just three shots behind Strange. Just ahead of O'Meara were Mize (72) and D.A. Weibring (68), some achievement for the latter, as he was fighting an intestinal virus: "Your body is telling you to lie down and here you are trying to win a very important golf tournament," stated a fatigued Weibring, but there were no such excuses for Lyle, who saw his grand slam dream disappear over the horizon after a poor 75, which saw him eight shots off the lead and slamming irons into the ground in disgust on a couple of occasions.

Europe's hopes were now solely on the shoulders of Faldo, who could refer back to his Muirfield experience at the Open in the previous year - eighteen straight pars in his final round - for his approach to the last day at Brookline: "I just hope to play solid golf. I guess that's all I can ask for. I just want to stay in the hunt, to stay close to the lead. The game plan is to hit the fairways, hit the greens, hole the putts," said Faldo in his typically matter of fact way.

For Strange, there was a chance to finally bury his major hoodoo, although the man himself was understandably tiring a little with regards to the cloud hanging over his head: "I think the majors thing has been kind of run into the ground. I've got a lot of time left. I'm only 33 and I'm just in my prime." Strange probably knew that the only way to stop the whispering and question marks over his record was by finally claiming his first major, and he had his backers amongst the pack to put right the wrong of Augusta '85. "If there's any guy I would bet on when he's close to the lead, it's Curtis. He's awfully tough to beat," declared Mark O'Meara, with Weibring also waxing lyrical about the tournament leader: "He has a fire in him. It's the same thing they said about Raymond Floyd. And Nicklaus, too. With Curtis, you can see it in his eyes." The eyes of the American golfing public were certainly centred upon one man, and it felt like it was time for Strange to deliver.

And so to what was supposedly the final day of the US Open. Any doubters of Strange's bottle in the final round of a major were beginning to raise an eyebrow or two, as the overnight leader bogeyed both holes 2 and 3 to relinquish the lead to Faldo, who unsurprisingly was playing steady golf as per usual. Weibring would join Faldo on six-under-par, and the top of the leaderboard was starting to become extremely congested, with ten players within three shots of each other as squeaky bum time approached. One man who timed his late charge a little too late was Peter Jacobsen, his round of 64 giving him the lowest score of the week, and a top-25 finish, even if his fine day was going relatively unnoticed due to the action at the head of the field.

Eventually the wheat was sorted from the chaff; Steve Pate's fine 67 was enough to give him a tie for third with Weibring (72) and O'Meara (71), and others such as Simpson (74), Gilder (75) and Mize (76) faded away when the going got tough. As time elapsed, it became clear that the winner was going to come from the final group of Strange and Faldo, with neither seemingly playing well enough to take the trophy away from the other.

Try as he might, Faldo simply could not break his par run, which on the one hand was at least ensuring that he was staying in touch, but on the other proving frustrating as chance after chance slid past (very much in the Lee Westwood mould). Strange retook the lead after birdies at 7 and 10, only for Faldo to finally make a move, his birdie at 15 following fourteen holes of regulation fairways, greens, and two putt par golf. Unfortunately, Faldo would immediately hand the shot back at the 16th, agonisingly so, as Strange sunk a long-range putt for par, and with just two holes to go, the American led by one, and again had one hand on a major.

Faldo must have feared the worst when his rival hit a sublime second shot to the par four 17th to twelve-feet, Strange arguably one good putt away from the title. But in yet another twist, Strange misjudged his birdie attempt badly, slipping five-feet past and missing the return putt, meaning the outcome of the 72nd hole between the pair would decide the destination of the US Open.

Naturally Faldo found the fairway - his fifteenth of the day - whilst Strange's drive ran into the rough. Advantage Faldo, even more so after the approach shots of the duo; Faldo's four-iron ending up 25-feet from the flag, whereas Strange once more found the greenside bunker as he had done on the Saturday. If Strange was feeling the pressure then his bunker shot did not reveal any nerves, his recovery shot to just a foot was so good that Faldo even found time to compliment his opponent.

The fact remained though, that Faldo now had an outside chance to win the US Open, and as his downhill putt progressed towards the cup, it looked for one moment that the dream was about to become a reality, and another nightmare for Strange. Alas the putt slid past on the right, and as both men tapped in for pars and shook hands - Strange saying "see you tomorrow" - wives Sarah Strange and Gill Faldo hugged each other, knowing that their men were to put them through more of this torment once more, the US Open still to this day employing an 18-hole play-off in the event of a tie for the lead after 72 holes.

Who was favourite for the play-off was debatable. Faldo at least had the experience of winning a major, but would be fighting a national favourite in heat of over 90 degrees, yet Strange had thrown away a perfect opportunity the night before and must have wondered if he had blown another major with his three-putt at 17. Faldo had the honour on the first tee, and on the third hole made the first move. Unfortunately for his supporters, it was in the wrong direction, his bogey giving Strange the early advantage, although Strange yielded this advantage at the next. It would be the American who would find the first birdie, his three at the 5th edging him in front, a lead which he never looked like losing.

Faldo did seem to have a chance at the par-three 7th; his approach just 8-feet from the pin. However, Strange rolled in a heartbreaking birdie of his own from three times the distance, and although Faldo showed great resolve in making his own two, he simply could not seem to get any momentum going. A bogey for Faldo on 11 gave Strange a two-shot cushion, before the moment that truly sealed the deal at the 13th hole.

A three-putt for bogey on the par four 13th was a body blow in itself for Faldo's hopes, but when Strange rolled in a birdie from 25-feet on the same hole, the two-shot swing put the American four shots in front, and even with his history it never looked like a lead that he would blow. Faldo could not get going, later admitting that "In the end, I just never put any pressure on him. I really needed to make a birdie somewhere," and it was becoming increasingly apparent that Faldo's race was run. Bogeys at 15, 17 and 18 summed up Faldo's day, his 75 (+4, including an inward nine of 40) not good enough to compete with Strange's solid level-par round of 71. In the end, Strange could enjoy his procession up the last, somehow managing to contain his emotions until the final putt, before embracing his wife, as years of personal and professional hurt came out in that one moment.

Immediately, Strange's thoughts turned to his absent father: "I have to thank my dad. This is for my dad. I've been waiting a long time to do this, and I screwed up the '85 Masters. But we don't have to think about that. I've been waiting a long time. This is the greatest thing I have ever done. This is the greatest feeling I have ever had. I just wish he could have been here." And of course Strange no longer held the tag of the best player yet to have won a major, something he was keen to point out: "I didn't want to face you guys (the press) if I lost," admitted Strange, adding "It (the win) got me to that next level. It also means that it's my first (major). But we're not going to stop here."

Strange was true to his word, successfully defending his US Open title at Oak Hill, a venue at which Faldo would gain a large slice of revenge in their singles match in 1995 Ryder Cup. But this didn't matter to either man in 1988, as one joined the echelons of major winners in golf, with the other, although disappointed, at least proving that here was a man who would contest a lot more grand slam events in the future (starting with a spirited defence of his Open crown at Lytham in July). And in a month when English sport was in the doldrums - from the abysmal start to the European Championships to the second skipper in our four captain summer in cricket - Faldo restored some pride to our sporting nation, even if the actions of a certain Curtis Strange meant another entry into the catalogue of glorious British failures during my childhood.

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