Curtis Strange first began working as a golf analyst more than 25 years ago. His return to Oak Hill as part of the ESPN broadcast team for the PGA Championship will mark the first time commentating at a course where he won a major championship.
That was only interesting until the two-time U.S. Open champion did the math. “There's not a lot to choose from,” Strange said with a laugh.
Even so, no other course brings such a mixed bag of memories.
The strongest remains the 1989 U.S. Open, where Strange showed his mettle in the toughest test in golf by making 15 straight pars to take the lead, made his lone birdie on the 16th hole and became the first player since Ben Hogan in 1951 to win back-to-back.
“It wasn't so much what I did, it's what others didn't do,” Strange said.
But then he returned to Oak Hill as a captain's pick for the 1995 Ryder Cup. The Americans had a 9-7 lead and kept losing every match that reached the 18th hole. Strange had Nick Faldo beat until he didn't, making bogey on the last three holes.
It wasn't the winning point, just the most crucial for Europe. Strange covered his brow with his hand during the closing ceremony, a snapshot that captured the moment.
“What do you want to know? Bogey, bogey, bogey,” Strange said that day. “The press can't beat me up more than I'll beat up myself.”
Strange hasn't been back to the course in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, since that day. He spoke one year at the J.R. Williams Four-Ball at Oak Hill. He thought about playing in 2008 at the Senior PGA Championship until he saw the forecast of frigid temperatures and withdrew.
What does he think when he pulls into Oak Hill? What memories will be the first to surface? His guess is probably both, and that's OK.
“As time has gone on, it's hard to describe ‘95 as a bad memory,” Strange said. “I still to this day feel for my captain (Lanny Wadkins) and the team members. But memories are memories. Hopefully, you have some good with the bad. Some memories ... not that you ever want to forget, but you don't want them in your brain forever.”
Failure is inevitable, particularly in golf, and most players tend to linger on losses. Jim Furyk has the distinction of being in the match that lost the Ryder Cup (2002) and won the Ryder Cup (2008). He concluded, “Losing hurts worse than winning feels good.”
“I've done a lot of losing,” Furyk said with a grin. “Maybe that's why I have that feeling.”
Strange knows the feeling, but that U.S. Open title — “Move over, Ben,” he said when he won at Oak Hill — is not easily overlooked and one reason he said of Oak Hill, “It's a great place to return.”
“My failure in ‘95 would never come close to overshadowing ’89,” he said. “I mean that. In a world where we remember the bad times over the good times, in this case it's not even close.”
It had been so long since Hogan won the U.S. Open in 1950 and 1951 that Strange says no one was talking about his chance until he shot a 64 in the second round. And then he shot 73 to fall three shots behind Tom Kite going into the final round.
He recalls every moment on the back nine from that Sunday, starting with the late Bill Millsaps of the Richmond Times-Dispatch giving him a thumbs-up on the 10th tee.
“I knew what that meant,” Strange said. “It meant I had the lead."
His only bogey was a three-putt on the final hole. There was no big celebration because he still had Kite and Scott Simpson behind him. There was simply the joy of winning his national Open again, and the satisfaction of doing what no one — not Billy Casper, Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson — had managed to do in 38 years.
It was 29 more years before Brooks Koepka won two in a row at the U.S. Open.
“As the years went on, it meant more and more. And since Brooks has done it, that doesn't take anything away," Strange said. “It's the one tournament that means the most to me.”
It was his last PGA Tour win. Strange was two shots behind going into the final round at Medinah the following year in his bid for three straight U.S. Opens. He shot 75, and there was always a question of how much that took out of him.
And then there was the return to Oak Hill. The details are not as clear to Strange, except for realizing on the 11th hole Sunday at the Ryder Cup, “This could be the swing match.”
They halved the 16th with bogeys, Strange from the fairway. Faldo won with a par to square the match on the 17th. And then Faldo won it with a wedge from 93 yards to 4 feet for par, while Strange missed the green with a fat 3-iron and failed to save par from 8 feet.
“We seem to hang onto the tough losses or terrible rounds more than we celebrate victories,” Strange said. “Why? I don't know. If you accept failure, it's not going to hurt. The more it hurts, the more you remember, and the more you don't want to do it again.”
And so here he is, 28 years later, coming back to a course that has gone through a major restoration. It might not look the same, but that 18th green remains elevated in front of the clubhouse, the scene of perhaps his greatest win and a loss that was hard to stomach.
“Can't wait to go back,” he said.
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