News & Opinion

Strange knows test that Koepka faces to repeat

We live in a time in which the Philadelphia Eagles are Super Bowl champions, the Houston Astros are World Series winners and the Washington Capitals just won the Stanley Cup. 

It’s official: Anything is possible. 

Or is it? As the U.S. Golf Association brings its premier championship to Shinnecock Hills this week, 2017 U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka is the only participant playing the match game. It’s been a fragmented 2018 for Koepka, who endured a torn tendon in his left wrist, a missed Masters and months of rehab. But more recently, despite a bone that keeps dislocating in the same wrist, he has returned in impressive fashion. He tied for 11th at the Players Championship and was second at Fort Worth before he slipped to T-30 last week in Memphis.

To borrow from Ghostbuster Winston Zeddemore, he’s had the tools; he’s had the talent.

But at Shinnecock, Koepka must battle something more than the viability of his wrist or his game. Thirty years have passed since Curtis Strange began his improbable double lateral. That is, he captured the U.S. Open in 1988 and did it again in 1989, the first repeat winner since Ben Hogan in 1950-51. Upon further review, you’ll find four others: Ralph Guldahl (1937-38), Bobby Jones (1929-30), John McDermott (1911-12) and Willie Anderson (1903-05). 

But focus the math on modern days and you realize that 66 national championships have been played since Hogan’s ’51 repeat at Oakland Hills. In all that time, just one player has done a duet. Now that is strange … no seriously, it is. It’s Strange.

As this U.S. Open unfolds, we’re talking about Koepka. But we could be talking about Byron Nelson, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and, yes, Tiger Woods. None of them has consecutive U.S. Opens in his tagline.

“What I’ve always said is, it’s not so much what I did; it’s what the others didn’t do,” Strange said. “When you look at the names, the real great U.S. Open players… How do those players not win, sometime, back to back? That’s what’s surprising to me.”

Take Woods. Among his 14 majors, he won back-to-back Masters (2001-02), consecutive British Opens (2005-06) and PGAs (2006-07). And when he won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a record 15 strokes, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would win more in succession. But in 2001, he wasn’t a factor at Southern Hills and tied for 12th.

A year later, he won at Bethpage, beating Phil Mickelson by three. Yet, in 2003, he never even sniffed it, finishing T-20 at Olympia Fields. Jump to 2008, when he captured the Battle of Wounded Knee and the playoff with Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines. He hasn’t won a major since. 

This quandary has obvious factors. First, it’s worth noting that back-to-back victories are rare in any professional tournament. Moreover, the U.S. Open is contended on different golf courses each year, courses with different personalities and different demands, courses regarded to be among the toughest in captivity. 

These playing fields are then infused with a U.S. Open setup, and while the nature of that beast has fluctuated at times, the test is historically regarded as the most burdensome of the four majors. “Nobody wins the Open; it wins you,” Cary Middlecoff, a two-time U.S. Open champion, once said.

Now an analyst for Fox, which will broadcast the Open at Shinnecock, Strange has trouble explaining why two in a row is so atypical. “I can only say [the championship] is a year removed,” he said. “It’s at a completely different venue, and that venue magnifies any mistakes you make. You have to be healthy. You have to be playing very, very well – 12 months apart. And you have to be at the right place at the right time. So, you have to get very lucky, too.”

Strange had all of those factors working at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., on June 18, 1989. A year after winning a playoff at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., he opened his title defense with a 1-over 71. At that point, 38 years removed from Hogan’s repeat, no one was connecting dots. When he fired a 64 to grab the second-round lead on Friday, the press entertained the notion, and Saturday’s newspapers reflected as much. 

But when Strange shot a third-round 73 to fall into third place, bets were off. Back-to-back questions disappeared. Then came Sunday, and 54-hole leader Tom Kite stumbled to a 78. His immediate shadow, Scott Simpson, shot a 75. And under the radar, only weeks after his wife, Sarah, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, Strange landed in the right place at the right time.

He strung together 15 consecutive pars, made a crucial birdie at No. 16, then took a three-putt knee at 18 to clinch what has become inimitable. Of course, Strange had one other thing going for him that day, something that a repeat U.S. Open winner certainly will need. He is unrelenting and tough as nails. 

“The pressure is not only about thinking you can win,” Strange said. “But you want to play well, you want to defend your title, and you have to do that in a U.S. Open. Just that is enormous pressure.”

In 1989 – and even more so in 1990 when Strange pursued a triple – the weight of the moment was substantial. That was before the Internet, before social media, before the country and the sports community became so infatuated with the celebrated and pop culture. Should Koepka have the lead at Shinnecock, should any U.S. Open winner assume that position, the duress would be suffocating.

“Some of it is because I’m still out there,” Strange said. “I’m still doing the U.S. Open, so it does come up. Can Brooks win again? Certainly, he can. Does he have the game to win at Shinnecock? Absolutely. But he’s going to have to play well, because he’s got a lot of great players to beat on a golf course that demands a lot.

“Hell, I root for him. I root for everybody. I want to see the best play the best. I’ve always said I’ll be the first guy to give someone a congratulatory hug and say, ‘Good on you.’ ”

It seems like anything is possible these days in sports. Perhaps Brooks Koepka can repeat his championship. On the other hand, this is the U.S. Open, and this is Shinnecock Hills.

Some things are more possible than others.  

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD