June 9, 2008

Captain Curtis

Curtis Strange has seen (almost) everything, and he faces another huge challenge at the Belfry

"I've been my own boss forever. If I succeed, there's one person I can pat on the back. If I fail, there's one person I can blame."

"I've been my own boss forever. If I succeed, there's one person I can pat on the back. If I fail, there's one person I can blame."

Nobody stalked a fairway quite like Curtis Strange, a man whose various titles -- 2002 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, two-time U.S. Open champion, 17-time PGA Tour winner, ABC analyst -- only partially define his legacy as one of the toughest men ever to play the game. At age 47, Strange has mellowed the way a forest fire loses its rage. The flames may not burn as brightly, particularly when he's wearing a network blazer, but the intensity continues to smolder.

A self-effacing, conflicted, almost tortured competitor, Strange reigned as America's best player throughout the second half of the 1980s, winning 12 tour events and three money titles. Few could have imagined that his successful U.S. Open title defense in 1989 would become his final tour victory, making his career one of golf's great anomalies. No one accomplished more on sheer tenacity, but few suffered a harsher case of burnout or a deadlier dose of paralysis by analysis.

Since his ill-fated stint as a member of the 1995 U.S. Ryder Cup team, Strange has been more adept at moving forward than looking back. Now in his seventh year at ABC, he continues to juggle his broadcasting duties with the Ryder Cup captaincy and a limited playing schedule. Golf remains front and center in his life, but instead of pursuing fairways and greens, he has a more purposeful quest: passion and perspective.

__Golf Digest: I was thumbing through the files we keep, and you've had some pretty interesting incidents over the years: "Apologizes for missing 1990 Grand Slam of Golf due to recurring stomach problems ... " __

Curtis Strange: You know what? They got some kind of angry. And it wasn't stomach problems -- it was hemorrhoid problems. Which, in fact, I had surgery for three years ago.

__"Apology at '89 PGA Championship ... " __

The PGA? I jumped a photographer bad there, on national television. That was a bad thing.

There's also the incident at Bay Hill in 1982, where a scorer complained about your language ...

I went after a photographer -- I never said a word to the scorer. I said it in front of the scorer, then the story gets turned around and they say I blew out a scorer. I never blew out a scorer. But nobody wants to listen to my explanation. It's too long ago. I don't care.

Besides, you've got more important things to worry about. Regarding the Ryder Cup: Were the players consulted on the matter of postponement after the events of September 11?

I spoke to the players, but I also spoke to Sam Torrance [European captain], and he agreed completely -- everybody wanted to get off the road, because, at that point, we weren't sure it wouldn't happen again. The players were all over the map, and so were their emotions.

Where were you when all this was going on?

I had an outing in Colorado Springs that Monday. After the tragedy, I got in the car and started driving. The tour was in St. Louis that week, and when the St. Louis event got canceled, I continued home.

How long did it take you to drive from Colorado Springs to your place in Virginia?

Twenty-six hours. I spent the better part of those two days on the phone with the players, the PGA of America, Tim Finchem [PGA Tour commissioner], a lot of people.

How difficult was the decision to move the matches back a year?

I can't say how tough it was, because I wasn't in the room when the decision was made. I was kept abreast of conversations [among PGA of America CEO Jim Awtrey, PGA European Tour Executive Director Ken Schofield and Finchem], but I will state for the record that the players and I were taken out of the decision early.

How quick was the decision made to keep the teams intact?

Immediately. And I brought it up. The whole purpose of keeping everything the same was so we don't lose sight of the reason we were delayed. When you drive, you have a chance to think, and I was going through every scenario in the car.

Did you ever consider re-picking the two wild cards?

I never gave it a serious thought.

But you did consider the possibility of adding players to each team?

We thought about adding one player to each side. I called Julius Mason of the PGA of America and said, "Let's think about this for three days, and then we'll talk." We both came to the same conclusion that it wouldn't be the right thing.

Why?

It wouldn't have been the 2001 team.

__How do you answer those who say the quality of the golf may suffer because neither team has its "12 best players"? __

I'd tell them they don't know what they're talking about. Does the Ryder Cup always have the "12 best players" at any particular time? No. A player who made the team early on might be playing poorly coming into the matches. Other players can come on strong at the end of the process and just miss.

You were a somewhat controversial wild-card pick at Oak Hill in '95 and lost a crucial singles match. Were your wild-card selections of Paul Azinger and Scott Verplank affected at all by what happened back then?

Now that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.

The idea that both are veteran guys ...

People are making this more complicated than it is. You try to pick the two guys who are playing the best at that time. I was in an enviable and a tough position. Five or six guys were playing well -- I could have picked any of them. Azinger had a lot going for him -- his tenacity, his experience, his popularity. When Verplank came along, I had a load of best-ball players; I needed an alternate-shot player. It's a tough game -- you'd better have something special about you, and so I picked Verplank.

Rocco Mediate was an interesting candidate. He's a guy who would thrive in a hostile atmosphere. Frank Lickliter was playing well, but what hurt Frank was that he'd be a Ryder Cup rookie.

Chris DiMarco was the toughest call. He was playing well, but he didn't finish at the International [tied for third place], and every shot at the Ryder Cup is like a shot you hit late Sunday afternoon. When it comes to splitting hairs, you do the best you can. I hope he wins every match in the next Ryder Cup, because he'll be on that team.

And Tom Lehman?

He wasn't playing well. It's tough to leave off a veteran like that, but if I learned anything from the '95 matches, it's that you can't pick horses for courses or choose a guy off his reputation. You have to go off who's playing well. Tom Lehman is undefeated in Ryder Cup singles. That doesn't mean a hill of beans to me. It's two years later, now three. Tom was struggling at the time, and I just didn't feel like he was the guy.

__[Strange spends part of an interview session looking out a window at Westchester Country Club, and sees Lehman almost make a hole-in-one. "I wish I'd picked him!" he jokes.] __

__Will you "hide" players the way Europe's Tony Jacklin did in the '80s, the way Mark James did in 1999, not playing Jean Van de Velde, Jarmo Sandelin or Andrew Coltart until Sunday's singles? __

I think everybody should participate in the matches before Sunday. That said, if I had somebody who wasn't feeling well, or if somebody was playing very, very poorly, that's another story. I really believe James made a mistake with his Sunday pairings [stacking Van de Velde, Sandelin and Coltart in the top half of the singles draw].

One caddie said you would never let the players sit around Saturday night and make out their own singles lineup, as was the case with Ben Crenshaw in '99 at Brookline. Is that caddie correct?

I have 12 of the best players in the world, a wonderful resource, and I'd be crazy not to listen to them, but the buck stops here. I have to make the final call. I obviously want a strong man starting and a strong man finishing. If the matches are close, you need a final guy with big ones, a guy who can handle everything when it's on the line.

__You were the last man out in the singles matches in 1989 at The Belfry, going against Ian Woosnam. Did anyone communicate to you the gravity of the situation, or did it not matter at that point [Europe retained the Cup with a 14-14 tie]? __

The nicest compliment I ever got in my life was on that Saturday night, when the team said I should go last. I can't tell you how much that meant to me. Then we went out and didn't play well, and at that point, we're just trying to get a halve. I was 2 down late in the match and birdied the last four to win.

I had told [U.S. captain] Raymond Floyd before we went out, "Don't get near me. I'll know what's going on. And keep everyone away." I always thought that was more intimidating, your teammates running up to you. Just stay away. I know what's going on. I know where I stand and where the matches stand. Please come out and watch, but do it from a distance.

Your record in Ryder Cup matches was 6-12-2. You were on teams that were 1-3-1. How much do those records bother you?

[Sighs.] Yeah, I feel bad. I feel like I didn't hold up my end of the bargain. I didn't play well enough to win. You can make all the excuses you want. They had good teams, too.

What was your reaction when Lanny Wadkins picked you in '95?

It wasn't a shock -- I knew I was in the running, because he'd talked to me. When you're picked, you say, "Thank you very much'' and go prepare. By the time we got to the PGA that August, I had blisters on blisters. I practiced and practiced -- no way was I not going to live up to my end. Nobody felt worse than I did about not playing well.

The Sunday of a major or the final day of a Ryder Cup -- that's when you find out how sound your fundamentals are. I found out mine weren't real sound. Although I played pretty well against Nick [Faldo], at least through the first 15 holes. [Strange was 1 up through 15 but halved the 16th hole and lost the last two to lose the match.]

What was the turning point?

The killer shot was the second shot at 16. A 6-iron, the worst shot I've ever hit in that type of situation. You ought to be able to eat pasta with a 6-iron, and I hit the worst shot. What made it worse was that Faldo was dead. If I hit it on the green, it's over. You say, "Where in the world did that come from?''

Even a two-time winner of the U.S. Open says that?

Absolutely. Different world, different time, different place.

What did you say to Lanny afterward?

Nothing.

You never discussed it? No. It's not the type of thing you discuss. You carry on. It's part of the game. He knows how I feel, just by me answering questions like this.

Would you have picked yourself for that team?

Unfair question.

Does that mean you're not going to answer it?

Yes.

What happened to the Curtis Strange who walked away from the 1990 U.S. Open having just missed winning three straight national championships? That seems to be the turning point in your career.

That guy was there for a while, and the intensity was there, but I started struggling, and I started messing with my swing. Then I began losing my tenacity, for whatever reason -- I can only speak about this now, because it's been long enough. It just happened all at once.

I wish I'd won more tournaments. I wish I'd continued on, wish I hadn't struggled with my game as much. As I look back on that time, the thing that really disappoints me is my game.

Maybe I lost my enthusiasm because I knew my game was going south. I couldn't stop it for a while, and that contributes to how excited you are to go to the golf course. The pressure to play well every day was part of it -- I feel like I let a lot of people down, including myself. I'm not proud of that part of my life or career. Was it burnout? Some of it.

What part of it specifically bothers you today?

It comes down to things people don't understand, because they never played professionally. I got tired of my swing. I got bored -- I always thought I had to improve, and I searched too much. Even to this day, I fight my swing.

Anything specific?

Nah, it's more like I experiment too much. When you don't play often, you'd better not experiment too much. You'd better stick with one or two fundamentals. I experiment every day. I'm pretty good on the practice tee, then I hit one bad shot in a round and I say, "Oh, that doesn't work." It's a feel thing, and it's not smart, but it's what I do.

You were 34 years old and you had climbed the mountain by winning two Opens. You'd been around golf all your life, grown up with the game. Maybe you just wanted something else.

We only have so much energy, mentally and physically, to be the best. The first thing that goes is the mental edge. Physically we all stay sharp, but except for Jack Nicklaus, it's only for seven or eight years. That's it. I don't care if you're talking about Trevino, Watson, Palmer, whomever. I wanted to be the exception.

__You were once one of the best players in the world, yet there you were [in early June], playing 36 holes trying to qualify for the U.S. Open. Other athletes retire. Actors are heralded as they get older. Golfers? __

We kind of drown in our own success, I guess. You don't have to quit. You can hang on, and in a lot of ways, it's sad. I'm still trying my heart out. I've got this job at ABC, and I know not much is expected of me as a player, but I do get embarrassed sometimes. I've cut back more every year because I'm tired of embarrassing myself.

What about your reputation as a fiery competitor?

Do you ever get sick of something? Something you're sick of hearing? That's mine: Fiery competitor. Everybody who has gotten to this level is a competitor. Everybody out here is gifted -- some more than others. I never felt as gifted as some, so I thought to be the best I could be, that was the way I had to do it.

__What about this notion that you played with a "controlled rage"? __

That's a derogatory, nasty term. I was never in a rage. You can't play a sport in a rage. You have to think. You have to act and react. Would I do some things over if I had the chance? Yes, but I'm not going to apologize for the way I played.

__Is "grinder" another one of those terms you're tired of hearing? __

I'm a grinder because I maximized my game. To me, it sounds like somebody with no talent who got it around. But that's fine. I didn't give up, like some.

Care to mention any names?

[Laughs.] Why would you ever want to give up? Things aren't gonna go perfectly all the time. All those hours, all those years, all those golf balls -- how can you let that go because you gave up? When you win a tournament, things don't go as planned, either. Hey, we got into this game knowing that. I just like to try. Don't care how many bad shots you've hit in a row, how many bad weeks you've had in a row, give yourself a chance. But I've hit a lot of quick shots. I might have given up on some shots -- I'm not gonna lie. I'm not perfect.

Have you seen some really good players give up?

I have.

Did you ever say anything to them?

Absolutely not. I can beat them. I will beat them.

Is being good under pressure a quality one can learn?

Sometimes we put too much emphasis on "guts." If you've got great fundamentals, you've got a better chance under pressure. If you've got nerve, your chances get better. And you have to get lucky. Winning two U.S. Opens was a great thrill, but I've gotten just as much satisfaction out of the times I birdied the last hole to win a high school match.

I've always looked at pressure moments as the time to show off. I've always said this: If you think you're good enough, you've got to want to put yourself in position to fail. I failed plenty of times. Everybody on tour has failed.

Was the bunker shot on the 72nd hole in the '88 U.S. Open at Brookline -- getting up and down to force a playoff -- an example of those fundamentals?

It was a simple shot made very difficult by the circumstances. There's no easy shot in golf, because you can screw up anything if you don't concentrate. There's no secret to it -- you get in there and do it.

How many words were exchanged between you and Faldo in that playoff?

More than one, less than three. Which is exactly the way it should have been. This isn't a personality contest; it's the national championship. He was the reigning British Open champion, and I wanted to do this for the first time.

Why did you skip a couple of British Opens in the mid '80s?

Biggest mistake I made in my career. I was playing well, but sometimes we're stubborn -- especially when everybody in the world was telling me I had to go. Everybody. The year I was trying to win my first money title [in 1985, when the British Open didn't count on the money list], you never know if you're gonna do that again. But when I didn't go the next year or the year after, I don't know. ... It didn't bother me then, but it bothers me now. I should have gone. Sitting in your rocking chair, you don't want to have any regrets. That's one of mine.

When you walked off the final green at Oak Hill in '89 after winning your second U.S. Open, what were you thinking?

I'd given my dad his due in '88, so this was more a feeling of accomplishment. I'd given myself the chance to repeat. I got to the lead after two days, and at that point, you need to get lucky. I got a break with Tom Kite not playing well -- that happens in big tournaments.

Your father died at the age of 38, and it has been suggested that you feared following in his footsteps. Were your health problems that ensued after the U.S. Open victories ever diagnosed?

No. I was lethargic, had headaches, felt run down. It was written that my equilibrium was off, which was wrong. My dad died of lung cancer, and that's entirely different from what I went through. I definitely think my health problems had to do with the life we lead. I've never been a good sleeper, and I think the pressure, the travel, the pace -- it all affected me.

In your roughest nights of insomnia, how many hours would you sleep?

It wasn't that I didn't sleep, but I'd wake up a dozen times, my mind going 100 miles an hour. I went to the Mayo Clinic and had my sleep evaluated -- the doctor told me about these tricks to help you sleep better. When things weigh on my mind, I get up and write notes about anything and everything.

After that second Open victory, did you get a congratulatory call from Ben Hogan, who had been the last man to win back-to-back Opens?

No, and I was disappointed. It would have been a thrill and an honor to get a note, to just hear from him.

You would think that Hogan would have appreciated your tenacity.

[Strange makes a face.]

Let's talk about some of your contemporaries. Wrestling with Seve must have been interesting [Strange lost to Ballesteros five times in Ryder Cup competition].

I'm not going to do this. You can ask me about anybody, and I'm not going to go there. We played hard. Enough said.

You won't even tell me what a great shotmaker he was?

No, but I wouldn't say that about anybody. Next question.

Did Seve captain Europe to victory in 1997 at Valderrama?

Knowing Tom Kite, I'd say no. I think Tom got an incredibly bad rap. And by the way, Lanny getting blamed for the loss in 1995 is so ridiculous -- the players just didn't perform. I didn't play well.

Being a captain -- is it overrated, underrated, or is there just the right amount of attention paid to the job?

It's not overrated in terms of the responsibility to the players. It's not overrated in terms of what [wife] Sarah and I have done in the two years leading into the matches. It is overrated in terms of impact on the outcome. Can a captain win or lose the matches? Yes, but only if it's close.

What have you and Sarah done over the past couple of years that might surprise people?

People would be surprised to know what good friends we still are. We like to hang out together. What have we done? She's gotten me to go into New York City to shop once a year. I enjoy it. And let me tell you, until you've been shopping all day, you have no idea how good that first beer tastes.

Is there any financial benefit to becoming the Ryder Cup captain?

I'm not sure. All I can tell you is, when I took the job, I didn't want to make any money on it, and I told them that. I didn't want anybody to be able to say I benefited from it. No way am I going to use the position. Not that anybody has, but there are a lot of things you could do. In particular, write a book, in which case you'd have to divulge what goes on behind closed doors. Then you lose the respect of the players. It's not worth it.

Let's talk TV. How is the Curtis Strange behind the microphone different from the guy who snarled and sneered his way to a couple of Open titles?

Sarcastic, smartass, temperamental, short -- that's with you guys [writers], though. I can't totally be him on TV, but when you're in it for years, people begin to sense what you're really like. I've improved my diction, but other than that, you talk golf. You try to explain what's going on out there.

We've got to talk about Johnny Miller.

You can ask all you want.

Is he the guy in the glass house?

He admits he's shooting from the hip, and a lot of people want to hear that. He's well-received -- people enjoy him.

Is he too negative?

Johnny says a lot of things. I listen to all the analysts now. I want to learn something when I listen to an analyst.

__If an American player does the same thing Jean Van de Velde did at the 1999 British Open, when he made a triple bogey on the final hole and you called it "the dumbest thing I've ever seen," will you be as hard on him? __

I said it was the stupidest thing I've ever seen, and you know what? It still is. It's one thing to react poorly in sports, but it's downright dumb when you have a chance to think about a decision, as is the case in golf. I really wasn't telling the viewers anything they didn't already know. Jean Van de Velde is a very nice man, and he handled the aftermath a hell of a lot better than I ever could have, but I'll tell you this: He goes to bed every night thinking about it.

What's the dumbest thing you've ever done on a golf course?

Break my hand. Walking from the 18th green. That's all I'm going to tell you.

Well, you are legendary for making some of the quickest and most demonstrative exits in golf.

I didn't waste any time when I missed a cut -- I could be back in Virginia by the time you got back to your hotel.

You've criticized Davis Love III, a guy you're rather close to, correct?

I think the world of Davis as a player and a person. I also think that if he'd committed himself, he would have been the best player in the world.

__You also jumped on John Daly when he made some comments before the 1994 British Open about drug use on the tour. You responded by saying he should "crawl back under the rock he came from." __

Somebody had to say it. We've got so many guys out here who don't want to take a stand. Somebody had to say, "No, we don't do drugs. No, we're not alcoholics."

I don't want to be critical of guys who ride the fence their whole career, but damn it ... I had a similar situation with a very prominent player -- you could call him a superstar -- at a players' meeting one year. I'd stood up and said something, and the player came up to me the next day and said, "Hey, keep talking. You're doing a good job." And I said, "Where the hell were you? Thanks for backing me up."

As for the Daly incident, John was going through a rough time in his life. Nobody's happier than I am that he's doing well now.

True or false -- you were the most heavily fined player on tour in the '80s?

I'm trying to think of who else might have been. ... You know, I don't think I paid $10,000 in fines over the years.

__What about the incident at TPC at Sawgrass in the '80s, when you said, "I hate this [bleeping] course," and it was picked up on national television? __

That incident occurred when Thursday and Friday rounds were just starting to be put on cable. And the boom mikes were incredible. Live and learn.

It's hard to imagine anybody having a better perspective on Tiger Woods' language than you.

Hey, Tiger's under a microscope from the time he gets up in the morning until the time he goes to bed. Arnold didn't deal with this; Jack didn't deal with this. If Tiger says a cuss word once in a while, it's because he's human. The only people allowed to criticize him are the ones who have never used those words.

__Talk about Ken Venturi's comments after you lost the '85 Masters, specifically, any exchange you might have had with him afterward. [Strange opened with rounds of 80-65 and held a four-stroke lead on Sunday before finding water at the 13th and 15th holes.] __

I never had an exchange with him. Being in the TV business now, I understand where he was coming from. Hey, we're all so sensitive. If you write an article about me that's not glowing, I'm gonna find something in there that upsets me. I childishly didn't like Kenny for saying, "This shot could cost him the tournament," or whatever it was he said -- I can't believe I watched the replay -- and I held it against him for a while.

Can you take us back to that '85 Masters, your thoughts at the time, and what you learned from it?

It would have been a nice story if I'd won. I basically screwed up. Not to take anything away from Bernhard Langer, but I was four up with nine to play and let it slip away. The next week, Nicklaus came up and said, "This can go two ways -- it can help you or it can hurt you." I was determined not to let it hurt me. I was already off to a wonderful start that year, leading the money list, but did it bother me more than anything else in my career? Yes.

You've got an identical twin brother, Allan, who is a good player. Why did you win two U.S. Opens and he struggled on tour?

When we were young, Allan took a different direction, played different sports -- football and baseball. Dad was as proud of him as he was of me playing golf. I think Allan lost some of his developmental years as a golfer and was a fraction behind. He played the mini-tours, finally got on tour in '81, lost his card and had enough. Decided he wanted to use his brain for a living. He's been a broker ever since and does very well. And he plays a lot of amateur golf and thoroughly enjoys it. I'm almost jealous of him, because he really enjoys what he does -- golf doesn't mean the world to him. I can't have fun on the golf course a lot of times. Or I can have fun in tournament play, but I can't play social golf too well. I lose interest.

I've been my own boss forever. If I succeed, there's one person I can pat on the back. And if I fail, there's one person I can blame.

Let's talk about one of the early milestones in your career. You eagled the final hole of the 1974 NCAA Championship to take medalist honors and help Wake Forest win the national title. How much did that shape your future?

I was a freshman, 19 years old. It was another step, from junior golf to amateur golf to college golf, to thinking maybe you could do this for a living. I knew it was a big deal when I called Mom after it was over and she cried on the phone. She'd never cried after I won a tournament, so that told me this was bigger than anything else I'd done.

You have two sons -- Thomas, who's about to turn 20, and David, 17. Both play golf. Would you advise either to try to play professionally?

At this stage of the game, I really don't think so. That could change. What it looks like to me is, they love the game, but they're not in love with it, and you've got to be in love with it to play for a living. This is a business out here, a job that becomes work. There are a lot of days when you don't want to play but have to. If you can't make yourself go work as a pro golfer, you're in the wrong business.

Interested in the Senior PGA Tour?

Oh, yeah. I've still got a couple of years, and I'm in no hurry to get there. I do wish there were fewer tournaments on the senior tour. I'm not going to give up this job at ABC, and just because I turn 50 doesn't mean I'm going to fall in love with this game all over again. To really commit myself like a couple of guys have, I can't see that, but I do want to compete.

I'd like to say that I don't like all this talk from the 40-plus crowd saying they can't compete on the regular tour anymore. I don't realistically compete because I don't practice.

Well, that's their reason, too.

Nick Price works. I think Greg [Norman] is busy doing other things. But those complaining, get off your ass and practice. The older you get, the more you have to practice. I understand firsthand how tough it is mentally. Enjoy your life, but go practice, too. Don't say you can't do it.

Tell us about your boat, Lady Sarah. A legitimate hobby or an excuse to drink beer in the morning?

Once I turned pro, I wanted to find something else to do. I got into boating through a friend of a friend of a friend, and got serious about fishing. It took me two years to build this boat, and it's a neat thing. Great escape, getting out on the water. It's not to get away from golf, but you can think without things bothering you. I've never gone fishing to get away from golf. Never got away from golf. Ever. But at least that gave you the time to think about it.

I'm sure there are some who can't picture you in such a serene mode, given the Type A personality you are.

You really think I'm Type A? I don't think so. Maybe B+.