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Strange still the last player to win back-to-back PDF Print E-mail
Monday, June 09, 2014 8:00 PM

Associated Press

 

PINEHURST, N.C. — Justin Rose can expect a phone call of congratulations from Curtis Strange if he were to successfully defend his U.S. Open title this week.

It's just not a phone call Strange wants to make.

This is the 25-year anniversary of Strange winning at Oak Hill to become only the sixth player to win back-to-back in the U.S. Open.

No one has done it since then.

"Do I want to see somebody do it? Not particularly," Strange said Monday. "But I'm not rooting against somebody."

Strange won his first U.S. Open in 1988 at The Country Club, beating Nick Faldo in a playoff.

A year later, he was three shots out of the lead going into the final round at Oak Hill when Tom Kite stumbled to a 78 and Strange closed with a 70 to win by one shot.

He doesn't know why it has taken so long for the next repeat champion. Tiger Woods won back-to-back at the Masters (2001-02), the British Open (2005-06) and twice at the PGA Championship (1999-2000, 2006-07). He is a 3-time U.S. Open champion but never came particularly close to repeating.

Ben Hogan won in 1950-51, so it was 38 years before the next repeat champion in the U.S. Open. Not even Jack Nicklaus won back-to-back. Strange never gave it much thought about winning two in a row until he shot 64 in the second round to take the lead.

"And then I didn't play well on Saturday, so I was three behind," he recalled. "So there wasn't anything written on Sunday morning. And I played well on Sunday and prevailed but there wasn't a lot written that week. And then after the fact, there was a lot written. Then, they thought if I could do it, it can be done a bunch in the future."

That hasn't been the case.

Woods tied for sixth in 2009 at Bethpage Black in his most recent title defense.

Even so, the closest anyone came was Retief Goosen. He won in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills, and the next year had a 3-shot lead going into the final round at Pinehurst. He closed with an 80.

Strange is at Pinehurst this week as an analyst for ESPN.

He is largely indifferent about whether Rose joins an exclusive club but made it clear he is not consumed with who wins. He mentioned how the Miami Dolphins celebrate each time an NFL team fails to complete a perfect season.

"I'm not drinking champagne Sunday night," Strange added. "But I've also said if Justin would happen to do it this year, that would be the first phone call. That would be fantastic."

OLD BATHROOM, NEW TEE: As if Pinehurst No. 2 wasn't difficult enough already, there is a new tee on the par-3 sixth hole that plays about 240 yards. USGA executive director Mike Davis said it probably would be used twice this week.

Oddly enough, the new tee was not part of the plans except for the removal of a bathroom.

Bob Dedman, chairman of the company that owns Pinehurst, never liked the brick bathroom behind the sixth tee and he had it removed. Davis was at the golf course doing advance work when the absence of the bathroom gave him a different view. And he liked it.

All the par 3s are roughly the same distance. This gave Davis options in setting up the course.

"If you look back at '99 and '05," he recalled of the two previous U.S. Opens at Pinehurst, "they were using the same clubs all four rounds. So two days we're going to play it back and then one day we'll go 50 yards forward and use a front hole location. For one par 3, they'll have to hit a long iron to a hybrid.

"And the whole reason is because he knocked the bathroom down."

Davis added the hole location for the longer shot would be the back part of the green. That's one of the few greens at Pinehurst where being long is the best miss.

FIELD SET: The U.S. Open field was set at 156 players on Monday with the recent Official World Golf Ranking. The USGA had set aside five spots for players who moved into the top 60 in the world.

Kevin Na, who lost in a playoff at the Memorial, was at No. 40. Bernd Wiesberger of Austria, who lost in a playoff last week on the European Tour, moved to No. 60.

That allowed three alternates into the U.S. Open — Cameron Wilson, the NCAA champion from Stanford; Craig Barlow; and amateur Brandon McIver.

The USGA still does not publish a list of alternates in case anyone withdraws before the opening round Thursday. According to a USGA official, the priority ranking of the alternates depends on whether the player who withdraws was exempt or had to qualify.

GREENS ARE GONE: Davis said the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 are as pure as he has ever seen them.

Enjoy them while they last — they'll be dead in a month.

Pinehurst No. 2 several years ago installed a hybrid bent grass called Penn A1-A4. Davis said the resort will switch to a Bermuda grass after the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open.

"With a shorter season, it's a much better surface to play and actually is less expensive to maintain," Davis added.

Spieth shows impatience of youth, wants major now: Talk about the impatience of youth. For 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, it's no longer good enough to be in contention for a major championship.

He's ready to win one.

Spieth was tied for the 54-hole lead at both the Masters and The Players Championship, the two biggest events on the schedule so far, but he couldn't hold it together on Sunday.

Now, he comes to the U.S. Open fully convinced that if he's in the same position, he'll be the one raising the trophy at the end.

"I believe that I can win this golf tournament," Spieth said Monday after a practice round. "I feel comfortable on this golf course. I think it fits my game. And when I step on the first tee, that's what I'm trying to do."

Spieth already became the first teenage winner on the PGA Tour since the Great Depression, having captured the John Deere Classic at age 19.

If the Texan can conquer Pinehurst this week, he'd be the youngest major champion since Tom Creavy at the 1931 PGA Championship.

The U.S. Open is usually the toughest test among the majors, requiring a player to accept that par is a good score on most holes, that bogey isn't necessarily a bad result.

This is a tournament where you put away the ego, save those spectacular shots for another week and know that the player who emerges as the champion will most likely be the one who makes the fewest mistakes.

Those traits usually require experience. Then again, Spieth has proven to have a very short learning curve.

He has already played in the Presidents Cup. He has already climbed to No. 10 in the world rankings. He already sounds like a seasoned pro when he talks about Pinehurst.

"It's really hard to hit the greens," Spieth explained. "You know that going in, and you understand that it's about where you're leaving it and where you're pitching the ball and the approach shots. It still doesn't necessarily help. It's still extremely difficult."

At Augusta National, Spieth had a win in his sights when he walked off the seventh green with a 2-stroke lead on Sunday.

Then, his inexperience suddenly showed. What he thought was a perfect wedge on No. 8 came up 25 feet short of the flag, leading to a 3-putt bogey.

The approach at No. 9 rolled back off the front of the green, leading to another bogey.

Bubba Watson birdied both holes, turning a 2-shot deficit into a 2-stroke lead. He was never seriously challenged on the back side, cruising to a 3-stroke win over Spieth and Jonas Blixt.

Spieth talked about the need for a "little bit of course knowledge" — certainly understandable for a Masters rookie. He was in contention again at the Players, generally considered the most important event among the non-majors, but five bogeys in an 11-hole stretch allowed Martin Kaymer to leave TPC Sawgrass with the title.

Pinehurst anything but 'pristine' for this US Open: Pinehurst No. 2 is anything but perfect for the U.S. Open, at least in the traditional sense of major championships in America.

Davis could not be any more thrilled.

"It's awesome," Davis said Monday as he gazed out at a golf course that looks like a yard that hasn't been watered in a month.

Sandy areas have replaced thick rough off the fairways. They are partially covered with that Pinehurst Resort officials refer to as "natural vegetation" but what most anyone else would simply call weeds.

The edges of the bunkers are ragged. The turf is uneven just off some of the greens, with patches of no grass.

Instead of verdant fairways from tee-to-green, the fairways are a blend of green, yellow and brown.

That was the plan all along.

Shortly after this Donald Ross gem was awarded its third U.S. Open in 15 years, the fabled No. 2 course went through a gutsy project to restore it to its natural look from yesteryear, before this notion that the condition of a course had to be perfect.

Ernie Els, a 2-time U.S. Open champion, was amazed when he walked off the 18th green.

"I wouldn't call this an inland links but it's got that character," he explained. "I was a bit nervous when I heard of the redo. But this looks like it's been here for a long time."

Els has been playing the U.S. Open for two decades. He never imagined the "toughest test in golf" without any rough. Nor does he think that will make it easier.

Els added the look of Pinehurst No. 2 reminded him of Royal Melbourne and a guy who actually grew up next to Royal Melbourne agreed.

"These are Melbourne fairways," Geoff Ogilvy said as he walked down the first fairway, where the grass was green for the first 200 yards before turning brown, then going back to greener grass toward the green. "This is kind of the way grass is supposed to be. In the summer it browns up and in the winter it's green. To my eye, this is what golf courses are supposed to look like."

Ogilvy understand architecture better than most players. He was looking at photos as Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw worked on the restoration. He had heard stories. And it still managed to exceed his expectations.

As for the idea of a U.S. Open without rough? He pointed to clumps of grass in the sandy areas and some of the wiregrass bushes. And yes, the weeds.

"Look, the reality is there is rough there," he added. "It's probably what rough used to be like before we had crazy irrigation."

The past two U.S. Open champions finished over par — Webb Simpson at Olympic Club, Rose at Merion, both at 1-over. A third straight U.S. Open champion over par would be the longest streak in nearly 60 years.

Not many were willing to bet against that.

More than a great test, Davis is hopeful it sends a great message.

The USGA has been preaching in recent years to get away from the idea that golf courses have to be perfectly manicured to be great.

Pinehurst No. 2 — and perhaps Chambers Bay next year outside Seattle — allows a chance to show the golfing public what it means.

The restoration project involved removing some 35 acres of sod and keeping only 450 of the 1,150 sprinkler heads. Water use is down an estimated 40 percent.

"It's look back in the past but it's really looking forward to the future," Davis added. "Owners, operators and superintendents won't give you this until the golfers think it's OK.

"At private clubs, unless the greens committee says, 'This is what we want,' the superintendent won't do it. It's people thinking, 'This looks fine'."

Pinehurst No. 2 effectively presents the opposite perception of Augusta National. For years, superintendents have complained that too many courses wanted to be just like the home of the Masters in the quality — near perfection — of the conditions.

"Hopefully, this sets a precedent," Ogilvy added. "If Augusta has been the model everyone followed, hopefully this shows that it doesn't have to be that way to be great."

Razorback Echavarria wins 2014 Mexican Amateur

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — University of Arkansas golfer Nicolas Echavarria has won the 2014 Mexican Amateur.

Echavarria shot four straight rounds under par to finish the 72-hole at 16-under par in the event at Yucatan Country Club in Mexico.

Echavarria will be a junior next year for the Razorbacks.

 

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