Sneak Peek: This article will appear in the May 27 issue of Global Golf Post.
Curtis Strange has been where Brooks Koepka is going.
Thirty years ago, Strange won his second consecutive U.S. Open and headed to Medinah in 1990 with a chance to join Willie Anderson as the only player to win three consecutive U.S. Opens. Strange began the final round just two off the lead but a closing 75 ended his pursuit of three in a row.
Now it’s Koepka’s turn to chase Anderson next month at Pebble Beach, where he will arrive in the midst of a spectacular major championship run, having won four of his last eight major starts, including the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black two Sundays ago, his second consecutive victory in that major as well.
A third straight U.S. Open would put Koepka into rarer air. It is relatively quiet now, the chatter about three in a row, but it will intensify as Pebble Beach approaches and the focus on Koepka narrows.
As much as he tried to make it like any other championship, Strange remembers the magnitude of his potential achievement growing after he won his second U.S. Open at Oak Hill, making him the first player since Ben Hogan in 1950-51 to win consecutive national championships.
“It was amped up,” Strange said. “I was going to try to go do something that hadn’t been done in about 90 years, since Willie Anderson.
“It adds to the whole program. It’s certainly there. I couldn’t have told you who the last guy to win back to back was until it showed up Saturday morning in the Oak Hill press after I led after two days. I didn’t know.
“Nobody had done it in my lifetime. All of a sudden I hear about this fellow Willie Anderson. I felt like I should know some history about him so I looked a little bit up. I don’t think Brooks is going to get caught up in all that.”
Koepka knows who Willie Anderson is.
Through his television work with Fox Sports, Strange walked alongside Koepka at the U.S. Open last summer at Shinnecock HIlls and the two shared a moment on the 18th green after Koepka had done what hadn’t been done in nearly three decades.
Strange’s playing style differed from Koepka’s – Strange didn’t have Koepka’s power – but both built their success on their toughness and tenacity. Strange practically willed himself to his two U.S. Open victories and invested himself so deeply in trying to win a third that when he didn’t, some have wondered if the fire dimmed within him. Strange did not win another PGA Tour title after the 1989 U.S. Open.
Koepka has a more matter-of-fact approach, almost compartmentalizing each tournament he plays, explaining it this way:
“You read some things about lack of this or lack of that. They were saying the same thing about Pete Sampras when he was beating everybody’s brains out.” – Curtis Stange
“I’m trying to give as much effort as I can out there. I’m trying to win a golf tournament. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. It’s not going to crush me. It’s not going to be the end of the world. It’s just one golf tournament.”
Koepka’s approach has worked for him. He has his team around him – swing coach Claude Harmon III, his caddie, Ricky Elliott, a cook, a physio guy and his girlfriend, Jena Sims – and they’ve found a major championship routine that works. Koepka doesn’t use a sports psychologist, a fact he made clear at the PGA Championship, believing there’s no need to overcomplicate how he approaches tournament golf.
“There’s a lot of trying to dissect how Jack (Nicklaus) peaked or Tiger (Woods) peaked. The bottom line is you get a little more motivated, they prepare and they have a lot of talent,” Strange said.
“Brooks doesn’t overreact. He doesn’t look like he gets too anxious. He truly believes in a quiet way in himself. I love him. You read some things about lack of this or lack of that. They were saying the same thing about Pete Sampras when he was beating everybody’s brains out.”
Strange said he likes how younger players today are able to break away from the game during the season. Koepka has talked about trips he takes, leaving golf behind, getting away for days at a time then coming back refreshed.
Two days without golf, Strange said, had him losing sleep fearing he was falling behind. The closer the chance for a third U.S. Open victory got, the more Strange felt it.
“Mentally, I never got away. Leading up to the third U.S. Open, it was always there, especially as we got closer and closer. It wore on me. I don’t think it will wear on Brooks,” Strange said.
“The only peace I got was during a round of golf prior to the U.S. Open. I went there and wasn’t playing great but I tried really hard. Maybe I could have rested a little more. Maybe, maybe, maybe. You just don’t know. You do what you think is right at the time.”
At Pebble Beach, Koepka will face a U.S. Open test that does not make power a priority. Length will come in handy, particularly if it’s combined with finding fairways, but Pebble Beach is more about handling the small greens and whatever tricks the USGA has up its sleeve.
At Bethpage Black, the nature of the course with its length, deep rough and oversized feel narrowed the field of potential winners, effectively minimizing the chances of shorter hitters. It was no surprise that Koepka and Dustin Johnson, two of the game’s longest hitters, finished 1-2.
It will be different at Pebble Beach. Graeme McDowell won the last U.S. Open there in 2010, but players are more familiar with it, most of them having played there regularly in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am through the years.
It’s a place that figures to favor Tiger Woods with his history there and makes Phil Mickelson a sentimental choice as he continues his U.S. Open chase. But the talk about favorites has to start with Koepka.
“He doesn’t get caught up in all the noise,” Strange said.
Curtis Strange shown during the 1989 U.S. Open. Photo: Larry Petrillo, Copyright USGA
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