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Strange celebrates silver U.S. Open anniversary of back-to-back victories

| Monday, June 9, 2014, 9:50 p.m.
Curtis Strange talks to the media during a news conference for the U.S. Open golf tournament in Pinehurst, N.C., Monday, June 9, 2014.
Curtis Strange reaches the 18th green waving to the crowd on his way to winning his second straight U.S. Open, this one at Oak Hill Country Club on June 18, 1989, in Rochester N.Y.

Justin Rose appeared somewhat surprised to discover it has been 25 years since Curtis Strange captured back-to-back U.S. Open championships.

Now Rose faces the challenge of defying the odds. The 2013 winner at Merion Golf Club begins his quest for consecutive titles Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.

“The test is different (at Pinehurst),” Rose said. “So there's probably a physical aspect to it for sure. Obviously, if you are a defending champion at Augusta, it's probably a mental challenge more than anything.

“But you have to learn a whole new golf course, and I think that's important. My preparation is going to be a key and developing and designing a game plan that you believe will hold up over 72 holes — one you can execute that suits your game and that will produce the winning score, which is what I did at Merion.

“I need to do the same at Pinehurst.”

Strange, an analyst for ESPN, devised a game plan that enabled him to win at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1988. Then the following year he executed a distinctly different game plan to outduel Chip Beck, Mark McCumber and Ian Woosnam at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y.

“Those courses were different to your eyes and feel,” Strange said. “But you still have to have a solid short game, and you have to putt well.

“If I did it, certainly Justin Rose can. There are a lot of factors involved in why it's difficult to repeat, including a new venue each year. The Open courses are always the most difficult we'll play, and weather usually impacts the outcome.”

At Oak Hill, Strange took control with a 6-under-par 64. Then, in the final round, his nearest challenger, Tom Kite, staggered on the inward nine Sunday.

“As Jack Nicklaus has said many times, ‘It's about the last, man standing at the U.S. Open,” Strange said. “And that was the case for me.

“The difference between Merion and Pinehurst is tremendous,” added Strange, who played Pinehurst No. 2 two weeks ago. “It's a very different looking course, which might be good.”

Rose is hoping his play at the Memorial Tournament will prepare him for a stunningly different environment at Pinehurst. However, there are rare similarities between the house that Jack Nicklaus built at Muirfield Village Golf Club and the sometimes-impregnable fortress at one of Donald Ross' most diabolical championship courses.

“The Memorial comes at a time when I'm thinking about the U.S. Open,” Rose said. “There's a lot of strategy (at Muirfield). Obviously, with Jack building it, you expect to think around this course as you would Pinehurst.”

Strange said it would have been difficult to win without being mentally and physically sharp.

“I knew it was going to be a marathon,” Strange said. “At other tournaments, it's about how many birdies you can make. At the U.S. Open, it's a mental grind. You have to change your psyche, and you have to be patient. There are a lot of little battles you have to overcome.

“It's a game played outdoors, so every shot won't be perfect. At least, preparation-wise, you'll be ready.”

Strange, who became the first golfer to defend a U.S. Open title since Ben Hogan in 1951, said he's puzzled that Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus — who have a combined 32 major titles — failed to win consecutive U.S. Opens.

“I'm really shocked that Tiger Woods didn't do it,” Strange said. “But neither did Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer or Lee Trevino or Tom Watson and all the rest of the greats to play this game.”

Considering Woods lapped the field by 15 shots at Pebble Beach in 2000, he was an odds-on favorite to capture back-to-back titles in 2001. But he finished a distant 12th — seven strokes behind South African Retief Goosen.

“The way Tiger played back in those days, there wasn't a course he couldn't win on,” Strange said. “But it goes to show you how fortunate I was to do that.”

Strange said he compares his accomplishment to the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins. Forty-two years later, the Dolphins unapologetically celebrate when the final unbeaten team falls.

“It's the same thing,” Strange said. “I don't root against the guys, but when the Giants beat the Patriots (in Super Bowl XLII), I understood where the Dolphins were coming from. Everybody had an extra drink that played with Miami.

“I'm not like that, but the longer it goes, I guess it becomes my career and the bigger my smile gets. I don't say much like the Dolphins. In fact, I'll be the first to call Justin Rose if he wins.

“It's not what I did, but it's surprising what others didn't do,” Strange added. “There's no getting around it that the longer it goes, the more proud I am of what I accomplished.”

Rose, the world's ninth-ranked player, is the next man up.

“I'm actually excited about that,” said Rose, who two weeks ago surrendered the U.S. Open Trophy. “It's been great having it for a year. It's time to go on and produce more opportunities to win more.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com.

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