Lake Forest, Ill. – Curtis Strange never pushed his two sons, Thomas and David, toward golf. The two-time U.S. Open champion – and the last golfer to successfully defend his U.S. Open title, in 1989 – only had one family rule regarding sports.
“If the sun was shining, go outside,” said Thomas Strange, now 30 and competing in his first USGA championship this week at the 32nd U.S. Mid-Amateur. “You’re not going to sit here and play video games. I don’t care what you do, just go outside.”
The eldest of Curtis’ two boys did eventually gravitate to the game, but not to the point that he wanted to follow in dad’s footsteps. Thomas actually was an all-state soccer player in Virginia and all-conference basketball player, and was recruited to play both sports in college.
He chose to attend James Madison University on a golf scholarship and played one year before transferring to North Carolina State University, where he was on the golf team for a couple of years but quit the team as a senior to focus on getting his sports management degree. Playing on the PGA Tour was never a goal.
For Thomas, golf became something to enjoy during family reunions. His grandfather, Thomas, won five Virginia State Opens (he beat Sam Snead once in a playoff) and competed in the U.S. Open; a great uncle, Jordan Ball, was a solid golfer and his uncle, Allen (Curtis’ twin brother), was a very good college golfer at East Tennessee State University. His younger brother, David, rarely plays and has gone back to school to get a degree in forestry management. He hopes to someday become a game warden.
“Dad is an avid hunter and fisherman and that’s their thing,” said Thomas, who opened his first Mid-Amateur on Saturday with a 5-over 76 at Knollwood Club. “Dad and I play golf [when we get together].”
Dad was quite proud of Thomas when he qualified for his first USGA championship. Thomas, now an equipment representative for Nike Golf in North Carolina, had not attempted to qualify since trying for the U.S. Junior Amateur in the late 1990s. Curtis certainly is no stranger to the USGA. He was a stroke-play medalist at the 1971 U.S. Junior Amateur and two years later as a 17-year-old, Curtis advanced to the fourth round of the U.S. Amateur at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. A year later as the reigning NCAA Division I individual champion from Wake Forest, he reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur, falling to eventual champion Jerry Pate, 2 and 1.
The USGA took notice of this budding star and selected him to the 1975 USA Walker Cup Team. Strange would later enjoy a fruitful professional career, which included his two U.S. Open victories. At the 1988 Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., he got up and down from a greenside bunker at the 72nd hole to force a Monday 18-hole playoff with Nick Faldo, which he won by four strokes. A year later at Oak Hill C.C. in Rochester, N.Y., Strange became the first back-to-back U.S. Open champion since Ben Hogan (1950-51).
Thomas was in grammar school at the time and he and his brother were not present for either victory. They were at their grandparents’ beach home in Morehead City, N.C., watching the drama unfold.
“A lot of people had a good time for a couple of days,” said Thomas, recalling the post-championship celebrations.
Thomas didn’t start playing until eighth grade, though gradually, the golf bug bit him. Sure, he wanted to beat his dad during family outings and he can still recall the first time that happened. He was home from college and the family got together at James River Country Club. Curtis announced at the first tee that the day’s loser would have to serve dinner. Thomas shot a 70 to Curtis’ 71. Dad made good on the deal and served burgers that evening.
“That was one of those things you never forget,” said Thomas.
Curtis, now 57, doesn’t compete as much anymore on the Champions Tour. He typically plays a handful of events around his duties as an ESPN golf analyst. Thomas, meanwhile, has gotten a little more competitive since his college days. Since moving to Raleigh, N.C., and taking his job with Nike 4½ years ago, his desire to play competitively has increased. Thomas says it helps that he can also play the game well when he travels to golf clubs throughout the state promoting his company’s products.
“When I’m trying to sell you drivers to put in your shop and I can’t break 100, it hurts my credibility,” Thomas said.
Thomas also admits that he’s a much better player at 30 than he was in college. For starters, he can think his way through a competitive round better. And golf is something he enjoys, but it doesn’t consume or define him. He doesn’t need to make a 5-footer to pay bills or feed his family, which includes wife, Katie, a 21-month-old son, also named Thomas, and another child on the way. Katie came to suburban Chicago, while grandpa Curtis and grandma Sarah, a two-time breast cancer survivor, watched their grandson.
“It’s kind of fun seeing a guy who was a pretty tough cookie at times be pretty much mush around our son,” said Thomas. “He just goes ga-ga around our son. It’s pretty cool to see that.”
Thomas also loves to watch and learn from others. He played his Mid-Amateur practice rounds with 62-year-old Raleigh resident Paul Simson, the 2010 USGA Senior Amateur champion who has been competing in USGA events since his junior days.
“I love playing with Paul anytime I can and picking his brain,” said Strange. “He’s kind of taken me under his wing. Paul does everything right. He doesn’t bomb it out there. He drives it straight or takes his medicine when he has to. The older I get, I enjoy learning from guys like that.”
And it doesn’t hurt to have a major champion in the family to glean advice from. The two have teed it up in the Father/Son Challenge a few times and Thomas cherishes those moments on the golf course, especially getting to play alongside other PGA Tour stars such as Davis Love III, Mark O’Meara, Arnold Palmer, Vijay Singh, Bernhard Langer and Jack Nicklaus.
“You feel like you’re at a tour event that week,” said Thomas. “They’ve got a gallery and the ropes. It’s as close as a lot of us will come to that.”
Thomas and his dad talk regularly and there was plenty of conversation leading up to the U.S. Mid-Amateur.
“He was excited for me,” said Thomas, who qualified in Salisbury, N.C. “He told me just to be patient during these first two days of qualifying. You know, one shot at a time. You can’t get ahead of yourself. Don’t think about the cut line. All that kind of stuff, which is very, very true. He just told me to call him when you’re done.”
Outside of a balky putter, Strange played well on Saturday at Knollwood Club, the companion stroke-play qualifying venue for the championship. Thirty-five putts derailed what was a solid ball-striking round.
“If you can’t get it in the hole … it makes for a long day,” said Thomas, who moved over to Conway Farms for his final qualifying round on Sunday.
But even if Thomas fails to qualify for match play, his experience this week has been nothing short of spectacular. As someone who experienced USGA championships from outside the ropes, the Mid-Amateur has been the ultimate treat.
If anything, it has made Thomas hungry for more. He plans to attempt to qualify for other USGA championships, including the U.S. Open. Only two families have had three generations of golfers play in the U.S. Open: the Herrons (Tim, Carson Jr. and Carson Sr.) and the Alexanders (Tyson, Buddy and Skip).
“The worst-case scenario is you don’t make it,” said Thomas of his new mindset toward qualifying. “[This experience] is really hard to describe. My wife and I talked about it [on Friday night]. I’ve been on cloud nine. This is as cool as it gets. I told my dad the other night, my philosophy on amateur golf has changed. This is the kind of stuff I want to do. This is big-time [with] big-time players.
“Everything from the tee markers to the signs on the tees, I feel like I am at a U.S. Open.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.