Five of the last six U.S. Open golf champions were previously 0-for in majors. Curtis Strange believes the trend could well continue this week at Congressional Country Club near Washington, D.C.
A Hampton Roads native and ESPN analyst, Strange understands majors and this course. He had three consecutive top-10 finishes at Congressional when it hosted the Kemper Open during the 1980s and, most famously, he won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1988 and '89, the last man to repeat as national champion.
Among those Strange said have the talent and recent form to break through this week: Lee Westwood, Steve Stricker, Jason Day and Mark Wilson.
Westwood and Stricker are no surprise. They're No. 2 and 4, respectively, in the world rankings, veterans accustomed to Sunday pressure at a major.
"He's mature, he's older, he's come back from the bottom of the barrel," Strange said of Westwood. "I think he's got to be (seriously) hungry."
Indeed, Westwood, 38, vanished from the world stage for about five years to start a family and retool his swing. He's finished among the top three in five of the last 12 majors.
Stricker had a similar run, with five major top-10s from 2006-09. Plus, he won Jack Nicklaus' Memorial this month against an Open-caliber field.
"He's the best player in America right now," Strange said of Stricker.
Really? Better than Phil Mickelson? Lefty's 0-for-21 at the Open, but he's finished second five times and, oh by the way, has won three Masters and a PGA.
"Well, if I was Phil Mickelson, I would look at five runner-ups as very, very disappointing," Strange said. "You have to try to take a positive out of it, but when you have his amount of talent and his ability and his record, not winning when you have a chance to win is disappointing.
"And there is no way else to look at it. I felt for him every time. But he's had opportunities, and he just hasn't come through. I think he certainly would look at it as a black eye right now."
Strange got his first extended look at Day during the Masters, where he tied for second behind the even more obscure Charl Schwartzel.
"I marveled at their swings," Strange said of Day and Schwartzel, "just perfect golf swings."
Wilson is on Strange's radar because he and Bubba Watson are the PGA Tour's only two-time winners this year. Moreover, Watson, No. 2 on Tour in driving distance, has the length to take advantage of what Strange calls "the kinder, gentler" United States Golf Association, which has toned down the narrow fairways and Amazon rough that marked past Open layouts.
"There's no hack-out rough unless you really drive it off line," Strange said. "The second cut of rough is not as penal as it used to be."
Of the last six Open champs — Michael Campbell, Geoff Oglivy, Angel Carbrera, Tiger Woods, Lucas Glover and Graeme McDowell — only Woods had previously collected a major. And Woods, as you likely know, is sidelined with various ailments.
Then consider the top 10 in the world rankings: Luke Donald, Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Stricker, Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, McDowell, Rory McIroy, Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey. Mickelson, Kaymer and McDowell, the defending Open champion, are the only ones to own a major.
"I actually think this is kind of fun because we're not talking about Tiger so much," Strange said. "His not playing definitely opens it up."
Strange was the first since Ben Hogan in 1950 and '51 to repeat at the Open, and he's surprised that neither Woods nor Ernie Els has followed suit. No offense to McDowell, but Strange would be equally surprised if a player of his pedigree — two top 10s in 17 career majors — joined the back-to-back club.
"Just because you won the U.S. Open doesn't make you that much a better player the day after than you were the day before," Strange said. "He's not the type of player who's going to contend at every major. … He's a solid player. I don't say that critically. It's just reality."
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