Since Curtis Strange repeated as U.S. Open champion 25 years ago, the first to do so since Ben Hogan in 1951, many of golf's elite have attempted to join their company. Tiger Woods, Hale Irwin, Ernie Els and Payne Stewart headline the 18-strong group, which also includes Tom Kite, Retief Goosen and Rory McElroy.
None succeeded. In fact, as reigning Open champions, none finished within three of the lead.
A Hampton Roads native, Strange won his first Open in 1988, defeating Nick Faldo in an 18-hole playoff at Brookline near Boston. The next year at Oak Hill outside of Rochester, N.Y., Strange overcame a four-shot Sunday deficit to Kite and edged Chip Beck, Mark McCumber and Ian Woosnam by a stroke.
"I didn't have any pressure to repeat, because nobody was talking about it," Strange said. "Friday in press room was the first time I heard about Hogan."
Friday's second round was when Strange matched the course record with a 64 that vaulted him into first place. But when he trailed Kite by three and Scott Simpson by two after Saturday, the Hogan chatter subsided.
Pinehurst No. 2 ranks among Strange's most memorable courses — he won the 1975 and '76 North and South Amateurs there — and is a fitting venue for him to mark the silver anniversary of his repeat. Unlike the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who famously celebrate each year when another NFL season passes without a team matching their undefeated record, Strange does not relish his distinction
"I won't go get drunk Sunday night if Justin Rose doesn't win," he said with a laugh. "I'd be the first phone call to him, and he certainly has the ability. … I certainly anticipated Tiger doing it, especially after he lapped the field (by 15 shots) in 2000. … And he didn't."
A three-time Open champion, Woods came closest to repeating in 2009, when he tied for sixth, four shots behind winner Lucas Glover at Bethpage Black in New York. But Woods entered Sunday 10 shots off the lead and never contended seriously.
Indeed, Strange authored arguably the most credible defense in 1990 at Medinah outside Chicago, where in his bid for a three-peat he began the final round two strokes behind co-leaders Billy Ray Brown and Mike Donald. But a Sunday 75 left him six out of the Irwin-Donald playoff.
Pinehurst seemed poised to host a repeat in 2005, when 2004 champion Goosen entered Sunday with a three-shot margin. But Goosen shot a final-round 81 and finished eight shots behind winner Michael Campbell.
This is Pinehurst's first Open since, and much has been made of the recent course overhaul that reportedly eliminated the thick rough preferred by the United States Golf Association. Strange played No. 2 last week and found the reports misleading.
"That's where everybody's going to be caught off guard," he said. "There is rough. I thought it was going to be sand and some wiregrass. It's sand, it's a lot of wiregrass, and it's a lot of weeds. They call it undergrowth. I call it weeds.
"Some of it's 15-inch high dandelions and some of it's low-growing weeds, and it's everywhere. It's different-looking rough, but it's still rough and it's going to be penal. It's wild."
With Fox taking over U.S. Open television rights next year, this is likely Strange's final year broadcasting his favorite event. He'll be working holes 2, 5, 10, 13 and 16 for ESPN on Thursday and Friday before NBC takes over for the weekend.
Like most in golf, Strange laments Woods' absence due to back surgery and considers 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott a logical favorite. Strange also wonders whether Phil Mickelson, a six-time Open runner-up, including at Pinehurst to Stewart in 1999, will be distracted by a federal inquiry into whether he engaged in insider stock trading.
After winning last year's British Open, Mickelson lacks only the U.S. Open for the career grand slam.
"It's got to weigh on him," Strange said of Mickelson, who has denied any wrongdoing. "It's got to."
While Strange will retreat to his North Carolina beach home following the Open, much of the golf world will remain at Pinehurst for next week's U.S. Women's Open, the first such doubleheader attempted by the USGA.
Like most of the LPGA players I spoke to at last month's Kingsmill Championship in Williamsburg, Strange acknowledges possible course-condition issues if the weather does not cooperate, but welcomes the added attention for women's golf.