Since Curtis Strange repeated as U.S. Open champion 25 years ago, the first to do so since Ben Hogan in 1951, many of golf's elite have attempted to join their company. Tiger Woods, Hale Irwin, Ernie Els and Payne Stewart headline the 18-strong group, which also includes Tom Kite, Retief Goosen and Rory McElroy.
None succeeded. In fact, as reigning Open champions, none finished within three of the lead.
That speaks to the challenge confronting 2013 winner Justin Rose this week at Pinehurst No. 2, where the 114th Open begins Thursday, and where Strange again will be part of ESPN's broadcast crew.
A Hampton Roads native, Strange won his first Open in 1988, defeating Nick Faldo in an 18-hole playoff at Brookline near Boston. The next year at Oak Hill outside of Rochester, N.Y., Strange overcame a four-shot Sunday deficit to Kite and edged Chip Beck, Mark McCumber and Ian Woosnam by a stroke.
"I didn't have any pressure to repeat, because nobody was talking about it," Strange said. "Friday in press room was the first time I heard about Hogan."
Friday's second round was when Strange matched the course record with a 64 that vaulted him into first place. But when he trailed Kite by three and Scott Simpson by two after Saturday, the Hogan chatter subsided.
Pinehurst No. 2 ranks among Strange's most memorable courses — he won the 1975 and '76 North and South Amateurs there — and is a fitting venue for him to mark the silver anniversary of his repeat. Unlike the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who famously celebrate each year when another NFL season passes without a team matching their undefeated record, Strange does not relish his distinction
"I won't go get drunk Sunday night if Justin Rose doesn't win," he said with a laugh. "I'd be the first phone call to him, and he certainly has the ability. … I certainly anticipated Tiger doing it, especially after he lapped the field (by 15 shots) in 2000. … And he didn't."
A three-time Open champion, Woods came closest to repeating in 2009, when he tied for sixth, four shots behind winner Lucas Glover at Bethpage Black in New York. But Woods entered Sunday 10 shots off the lead and never contended seriously.
Indeed, Strange authored arguably the most credible defense in 1990 at Medinah outside Chicago, where in his bid for a three-peat he began the final round two strokes behind co-leaders Billy Ray Brown and Mike Donald. But a Sunday 75 left him six out of the Irwin-Donald playoff.
Pinehurst seemed poised to host a repeat in 2005, when 2004 champion Goosen entered Sunday with a three-shot margin. But Goosen shot a final-round 81 and finished eight shots behind winner Michael Campbell.
This is Pinehurst's first Open since, and much has been made of the recent course overhaul that reportedly eliminated the thick rough preferred by the United States Golf Association. Strange played No. 2 last week and found the reports misleading.
"That's where everybody's going to be caught off guard," he said. "There is rough. I thought it was going to be sand and some wiregrass. It's sand, it's a lot of wiregrass, and it's a lot of weeds. They call it undergrowth. I call it weeds.
"Some of it's 15-inch high dandelions and some of it's low-growing weeds, and it's everywhere. It's different-looking rough, but it's still rough and it's going to be penal. It's wild."
With Fox taking over U.S. Open television rights next year, this is likely Strange's final year broadcasting his favorite event. He'll be working holes 2, 5, 10, 13 and 16 for ESPN on Thursday and Friday before NBC takes over for the weekend.
Like most in golf, Strange laments Woods' absence due to back surgery and considers 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott a logical favorite. Strange also wonders whether Phil Mickelson, a six-time Open runner-up, including at Pinehurst to Stewart in 1999, will be distracted by a federal inquiry into whether he engaged in insider stock trading.
After winning last year's British Open, Mickelson lacks only the U.S. Open for the career grand slam.
"It's got to weigh on him," Strange said of Mickelson, who has denied any wrongdoing. "It's got to."
While Strange will retreat to his North Carolina beach home following the Open, much of the golf world will remain at Pinehurst for next week's U.S. Women's Open, the first such doubleheader attempted by the USGA.
Like most of the LPGA players I spoke to at last month's Kingsmill Championship in Williamsburg, Strange acknowledges possible course-condition issues if the weather does not cooperate, but welcomes the added attention for women's golf.
"When did we ever talk about the Women's Open in February or March?" he said. "We (did) this year. That's a good thing. A few more will tune in to the women to see how they play against the golf course they just saw the (previous) week.
"Pinehurst is an attraction itself, and people will tune in to see that. And as wonderful as Pine Needles is right down the road, where they've had the Women's Open (three) times, more people are going to tune in to watch them play No. 2."
First, they'll tune in to see if Rose can join Strange as a back-to-back Open champion.
"I guess it shows how fortunate I was," Strange said of the 25-year gap. "Right place, right time."
How U.S. Open champions since 1989 have fared the following year at the tournament:
1990 Curtis Strange T21, six back
1991 Hale Irwin T11, eight back
1992 Payne Stewart T51, 13 back
1993 Tom Kite Missed cut
1994 Lee Janzen Missed cut
1995 Ernie Els Missed cut
1996 Corey Pavin T40, 11 back
1997 Steve Jones T60, 19 back
1998 Ernie Els 49th, 16 back
1999 Lee Janzen T46, 19 back
2000 Payne Stewart N/A
2001 Tiger Woods T12, seven back
2002 Retief Goosen Missed cut
2003 Tiger Woods T20, 11 back
2004 Jim Furyk T48, 22 back
2005 Retief Goosen T11, eight back
2006 Michael Campbell Missed cut
2007 Geoff Ogilvy T42, 14 back
2008 Angel Cabrera Missed cut
2009 Tiger Woods T6, four back
2010 Lucas Glover T58, 15 back
2011 Graeme McDowell T14, 14 back
2012 Rory McElroy Missed cut
2013 Webb Simpson T 32, 12 back
2014 Justin Rose ???
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