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A U.S. Open to Remember
It was 25 years ago that The Country Club of Brookline hosted the U.S. Open. The occasion marked the 75th anniversary of Francis Ouimet's extraordinary triumph in the 1913 Open, and came 25 years after Julius Boros defeated Arnold Palmer and Jacky Cupit to capture the 1963 national championship.
It's unfortunate that next week's Open isn't being played out in front of the iconic goldenrod-colored clubhouse, where so many of the game's greatest moments have been staged, from Ouimet's seminal win to the stunning Sunday comeback of the Americans in the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches.
The Country Club is one of five founding clubs of the United States Golf Association, and golf was first played there in 1893. It has hosted 15 USGA championships. Instead, Merion Golf Club, outside Philadelphia, is the site of the Open. I love the fact that the Open is returning to Merion after a 31-year absence, but it shouldn't have been this summer, not 100 years after Ouimet's victory. But don't blame the USGA; the members of The Country Club didn't want to deal with the inconvenience of hosting the championship.
I was fortunate enough to cover the 1988 Open, when Curtis Strange defeated Nick Faldo in a playoff. It was the first major for Strange, who had blown the 1985 Masters with a back-nine collapse on Sunday, and he would return to Oak Hill the following June to win a second straight Open, matching Ben Hogan's accomplishment in 1950 and '51.
My lasting memory of that playoff is the relief and sadness etched across Strange's face following his victory. If you were in the press tent that afternoon when Strange sat down, and were completely oblivious to what had taken place, you would have thought he'd just blown a three-shot lead with one hole to play.
He looked like Jean van de Velde before Jean van de Velde turned his name into a synonym for collapse.
Strange was teary-eyed, barely able to talk, with a white towel across his face. That was the Curtis Strange, newly-minted U.S. Open champion, who stepped onto the podium that Monday afternoon.
Strange was never the most popular golfer. He could be a bit irascible and off-putting. He was certainly intense, many times to his detriment. But on this occasion he unveiled a softer, emotional side. It's what happens sometimes when a life-long goal is reached, on Father's Day, and your dad isn't there to share it.
"This is going to be tough," Strange began the press conference, running his hand along his forehead, attempting to suppress tears. "You wait for a moment like this in your life to be able to thank the people who have given you advice . . ."
"This is for my Dad," he said, finally. "You should have to thank people sometimes when you have the opportunity. This is the greatest thing I've ever accomplished. This is the greatest feeling I've ever had."
He mentioned that '85 Masters when he squandered a four-shot lead with nine holes to play, saying, "I screwed that up and I was as disappointed about that as anything."
At one point, he admitted, "Sure doesn't sound like the U.S. Open champ, does it?"
The Country Club, with its knee-high rough, narrow fairways, blind approaches and treacherous, sloping greens, has always provided riveting storylines whenever a major event has come to its hallowed grounds. It began with Ouimet, which I will delve into in more detail later this week, and continued in '63 when Palmer was beaten in a second straight playoff (he would also lose the '66 Open in extra holes to Billy Casper). Of course, most golf fans remember the '99 Ryder Cup, Justin Leonard's 45-foot putt on the 17th hole, and the resulting celebration as Jose Maria Olazabal waited his turn that immediately transformed the event into must-see TV.
The 17th hole also played a big part in the '88 Open, just as it did when Ouimet won 75 years before by effectively clinching his title on that green. Strange wound up in a playoff after three-putting the 17th on Sunday, and whispers of the '85 Masters were on everybody's lips.
He faced a major gut check in that 18-hole playoff. "It's all right in here, how large your heart is," Faldo said that afternoon.
With more than 25,000 spectators scrambling for position to follow only two golfers, it was a wild, hectic day. Strange birdied the fifth hole to take the lead, then birdied the 13th as Faldo bogeyed for a three-shot cushion with only five holes to play.
That's not to say Strange strolled to victory. No one does that in the Open, with the exception of Tiger Woods, circa 2000, or Rory McIlroy two years ago. Strange mastered the rolling terrain and nasty rough to become an escape artist around the greens, registering a mere 11 one-putts. He called his 29-foot putt for birdie on the 13th the turning point. He walked to the 18th hole with that comfortable three-shot advantage.
The previous day, his approach had landed in the deep bunker guarding the front of the final green, and he needed to get up-and-down to force a playoff. This time, he found the green for the first time all week. "I stuck a 2-iron right in the middle of that SOB," he said.
In the end, he shot what seemed like a pedestrian 71 to Faldo's 75. But that's the Open, when par is usually always a very good score. And when he was asked what it all meant, the emotional Strange turned back into the fiery competitor most golf fans knew.
"It means that I've gotten to that next level, dammit," he said, pounding his fist onto the table. "It means that Curtis Strange might be looked at a different way."
Strange was smiling now. The U.S. Open champion no longer looked sad. Not one tiny bit.
Rob Duca is an award-winning sports columnist who wrote for the Cape Cod Times for 25 years, covering golf, the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins. He is now managing editor of Golf & Leisure Cape Cod magazine and has written for a variety of other publications, including Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, Yankee magazine and Cape Cod Life.