MEDINAH, ILL., JUNE 13 -- Curtis Strange stands on the brink of history, with his pearly white smile and his blinding gold Rolex. This isn't Civil War history, or Titanic history, or Depression history.
No, this is golf history. This is Curtis Strange trying to do something that only one golfer has done before: win three consecutive U.S. Open championships. Not since Willie Anderson at the turn of the century has a player won three in a row. Not since Ben Hogan in 1950-51 had a player won two in a row before Strange did it all Oak Hill a year ago. Jack Nicklaus never won two straight. Arnold Palmer only won once. Sam Snead never won one.
Yep, this is golf history, and in his fashion, Strange faces it with a smile. "This is what I've been thinking about for 12 months," he said at the Medinah Country Club, where the Open begins Thursday. "This is what I've been preparing for for three months since the Masters . . . You know something's up when you have a knot in your stomach for a week. Your mind wanders, thinking about three in a row. Every idle moment you think about Medinah."
When Strange or any other competitor thinks about Medinah, they think about long (7,185 yards, par 72, the longest Open course ever), they think about trees (3,700 of them lining thew fairways), they think about sloping fast greens. They think par will win it for four rounds, they think if the wind blows like it did in practice Tuesday, almost any score could win it.
Strange faces the usual stiff competition, the likes of a hot Greg Norman, the Tour's leading money-winner, a hot Payne Stewart; a dangerous Nick Faldo, who has won two consecutive Masters; a red-hot Wayne Levi, who has won two of the last three tournaments, including last week's Western Open, and Jack Nicklaus, 50, a four-time Open winner who last week won the Senior TPC with a 27-under-par total.
Strange faces the added burden of the crush of public attention, the heat of the spotlight. "It's a great position to be in," Strange said. "It's been hectic, it's been busy. I'm not so sure I want it to end. Win, lose or draw, I still have another Open in me."
He won the 1988 Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., by defeating Faldo in an 18-hole playoff. He won last year at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., by playing rock-steady as Tom Kite did an uncharacteristic fold the final day.
In preparing for this week's Open, Strange has been careful not to overprepare, to not make himself well-done before the tournament even starts. "I've been careful of not practicing too much, wearing myself out," he said. "I want to be fresh when we start on Thursday."
Mark Calcavecchia, another player who might be in contention this week despite a sore little toe of his left foot, thinks Strange might be the best there is in holding up under pressure. "If you can win two, you can win three," he said. "There's lots of pressure on him but he handles the pressure as good as anybody in the game."
Strange says Medinah is tougher than either Brookline or Oak Hill, particularly if the wind blows. And though this is the longest course in Open history, lengthened and rebuilt since the last Open here in 1975, won by Lou Graham, it doesn't play that long, which favors Strange's average length and above-average accuracy in hitting fairways.
The trees that line every hole are deceptive -- they look closer than they are, and the ground underneath them supports a kinder, gentler rough than recent Opens.
Strange hasn't won on Tour or overseas this year; his highest finish in the United States has been a tie for fifth. Peak form is still a pitch and putt away. "The odds are very much against me," he said. "The odds are very much in favor that Sunday night I will go home without the trophy."
And how will that feel, Curtis? Well, he has been seeing himself double for two years. "There has been this fictitious person beside me for two years," he said. "If I don't win, it will be like losing my best buddy."