SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — When Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open on Father’s Day, he didn’t hug his father first. He didn’t hug his beauty-queen girlfriend, either.
Instead, Koepka hugged the sweaty, 63-year-old man who’d been stalking him all day. He hugged Curtis Strange.
More precisely, Strange hugged him. Koepka had little choice in the matter. As soon as Koepka’s cleats crunched the gravel path above the 18th green, Strange grabbed him by the right hand, pulled him close, locked his arms around him and whispered:
“Hell of a job, bud!”
It was a moment of supreme graciousness.
For the last 29 years, Strange was the last player to win consecutive Opens. Only six others had done it in 117 tournaments. For the last 21 years, Strange was the only one alive.
More than any other species of athlete, golfers are jealous of their records. Johnny Miller’s record 63 in the 1973 Open at Oakmont is considered the greatest round in history, and he still treats it that way even though five other golfers have matched his Open record, including Tommy Fleetwood on Sunday. Jack Nicklaus wants to outlive all challenges to his collection of 18 major titles. Strange is unselfish.
This is all the more remarkable because Strange’s U.S. Open wins in 1988 and 1989 are kind of all he’s got. He won the 1974 NCAA Championship, and he won 17 times on the PGA Tour and topped the money list in 1985, ’87 and ’88. But the Open wins got him into the Hall of Fame. He played when Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tom Watson were in their prime. All of them won consecutive majors. None of them won consecutive U.S. Opens. Strange had that for himself.
With a puckish sense of humor, fate placed Strange at the scene of his diminishment. He followed Koepka and Dustin Johnson on Sunday for Fox Sports. Did he ever feel wistful as he narrated Koepka’s historic round?
“Heck, no,” he said. “What are they gonna do, take one away? I’m part of a group. Now I’m part of, seven, is it? It’s a good group.”
It’s a very good group. Strange joined it 38 years after Ben Hogan did it, in 1950 and 1951.
Players who have won consecutive U.S. Opens
|Player||Year and Course|
|Willie Anderson||1903 (Baltusrol), 1904 (Glen View Club), 1905 (Myopia Hunt Club)|
|John McDermott||1911 (Chicago Golf Club), 1912 (Country Club of Buffalo)|
|Bobby Jones||1929 (Winged Foot), 1930 (Interlachen)|
|Ralph Guldahl||1937 (Oakland Hills), 1938 (Cherry Hills)|
|Ben Hogan (amateur)||1950 (Merion), 1951 (Oakland Hills)|
|Curtis Strange||1988 (The Country Club), 1989 (Oak Hill)|
|Brooks Koepka||2017 (Erin Hills), 2018 (Shinnecock Hills)|
It is so rarely achieved because no tournament compares to the crucible that is the U.S. Open, which is administered by a group of USGA sadists who would rather see you break your heart than see you break par. The tournament rotates among sites of disparate design — some old, some new, but all configured with impossible rough and treacherous greens designed to crush a golfer’s spirit. It is a tournament of attrition.
That’s why only a half-dozen men had won it in consecutive years before Sunday. Koepka overtook a quartet of 54-hole leaders to become the lucky seventh.
“To go back-to-back … I really can’t even put it into words,” Koepka said. “I can’t wrap my head around it.”
Strange had no trouble putting words to it. Koepka blasted drives and flighted irons and massaged his chips and putts, but doing that in those conditions requires focus that no other tournament demands. You have to ignore expectations and setbacks.
“We’ve seen that physical skills [alone] don’t win golf tournaments. You’ve got to have the whole package,” Strange said. “He was 7-over [through 25 holes] on Friday. How do you turn that around? You don’t do it happy-go-lucky. You’ve got to kick yourself in the ass and get it together.”
Koepka got it together and went 6-under over his final 11 holes of the second round.
“It’s just mentally draining,” Koepka said Sunday night, the championship trophy at his elbow. “I’m exhausted.”
The demands of being the U.S. Open champion for a year outweigh those of any other tournament, and when you show up the next year you’re expected to be the same golfer you were the year before. You’re not, of course. In Koepka’s case, he missed 15 weeks this season with a wrist injury.
“So much happens between those 12 months,” Strange said.
When you show up the next year you have to decipher an entirely different sort of course. Erin Hills was a young, hybrid layout, on which Koepka tied the U.S. Open record by finishing 16-under par. Shinnecock Hills is an old, windblown links design, and he won at 1-over.
“I’m proud of him, because there was some talk about Erin Hills not being ‘The’ Open that is supposed to be an Open; that he was [just] a big hitter,” Strange said. “Now, he’s won at a classic here. He’s an Open player.”
Next year the Open moves to Pebble Beach, which Koepka played once, two years ago. Can he win there?
“Absolutely. Hell, I came close,” said Strange, who contended in 1990. “He’s proven he can win on a classic. So yeah. For sure.”
Finally, down the stretch, you have to hold it together. In 1989, Strange held a two-shot lead as he played the 71st and 72nd holes. So did Koepka on Sunday. Strange chatted with his caddie to distract himself from the moment. Koepka kept quiet.
“I felt like all I had to do was hit the green on 17,” he said, which he did — then badly missed the green on No. 18.
Strange is the only living soul who understands what Koepka was feeling.
“This was all about nerves,” Strange said. “You couldn’t spit if you had a knife to your stomach.”
“The shot we had on 18 was pretty bad, I’m not going to lie,” said Koepka. He only wanted to make sure he didn’t miss to the right of the green. “I knew right was dead, and as long as we just kept it left, it would be OK.”
A few minutes later he was rewarded with a hug — from a sweaty 63-year-old with a headset on.
“I was just lucky to be out here to watch it today. This was really … special. He played so well. Gosh. He deserved to win,” Strange said.
“I just hope it means as much to him as it did to me.”