It only takes a couple of bad shots at the wrong time to saddle a golfer with a reputation for failing the big tests - and so it was with Curtis Strange. After he hit two balls in the water to blow the 1985 Masters, it didn't seem to matter that Strange broke money-winning records in two of the last three years and stood on the threshhold of greatness. No matter how much he accomplished, he couldn't shed his image as the best player never to win a major - the guy who wins money but not titles. Now, of course, Strange has finally silenced his critics - winning the 88th US Open with a magnificent 6-under-par 278 for the regulation 72 holes followed by a four-stroke victory over British Open champion Nick Faldo in an 18-hole playoff Monday.
The outcome was a doubly important one because of what happened three years ago at Augusta - as the 33-year-old veteran from Kingsmil, Va., was the first to acknowledge.
``I messed up that Masters, and I was as disappointed as anyone,'' he said. ``...I've been waiting a long time for this.''
Although Strange was never far from the lead here as he shot rounds of 70-67-69-72, and he never trailed Faldo in the playoff, his eventual triumph still didn't come without its full quota of anxious moments.
Strange moved into the lead midway through Saturday's third round and appeared to be taking command when his game suddenly turned shaky near the end of the day. He hit into a trap and missed an 8-foot putt to bogey the 16th, then three-putted the 17th for another bogey to let defending champion Scott Simpson, British Open titleholder Nick Faldo, and Bob Gilder all close the gap to one stroke.
That got the whispers going, and it didn't help when he started out in similar fashion Sunday, bogeying two of the first three holes to fall out of the lead. He settled down after that, though, while Simpson and Gilder both ran into trouble, leaving the issue pretty much between him and Faldo down the stretch.
At the 16th, Strange sank a 25-foot putt for the birdie that put him back in command. But on the 17th, sitting on the green 10 or 11 feet from the cup with the title in his grasp, he rolled his putt five feet past the hole and missed coming back for the bogey that let Faldo back in it. Both parred the 18th, creating a playoff for the title and setting a lot of memory banks in motion.
This was the third Open on this historic course at the nation's very first country club, and both others also had gone to playoffs at least partly because of difficulties by one or more contestants on or around that treacherous 17th green. It was there in 1913 that the great British champion Harry Vardon had trouble getting out of a bunker, setting up the three-way playoff eventually won in a historic upset by Francis Ouimet. And it was on that same hole in the last round in 1963 that Arnold Palmer missed an 18-inch putt and Jacky Cupit took a double bogey 6, setting up another three-man playoff in which both lost out to Julius Boros.
A more recent memory, of course, was that 1985 Masters, when Strange led going into the final nine holes only to bogey both par 5s as Bernhard Langer surged past him for the title.
With that one for precedent, and in view of Curtis's late shakiness Saturday and his erratic play Sunday, it was hard not to wonder if had set himself up for another near-miss. But he came out confidently Monday, birdied two of the first five holes, and never relinquished the lead although the duel was closer than the final 71-75 margin makes it appear.
Leading by just one stroke after 12 holes, Strange took command on the 13th by sinking a 29-foot birdie putt while Faldo took a bogey to drop three strokes off the pace. The Englishman came right back with a birdie on 14 to cut the margin to two strokes but couldn't get any closer.