SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. (Reuters) - Curtis Strange, like Tiger Woods, peaked in his early 30s so he understands better than most the mental battles the 14-times major champion is fighting as he tries to regain his old magic.
Strange never won again on the PGA Tour after clinching his second successive U.S. Open title in 1989, at the age of 34.
Woods, now 42 years old, has not captured a major since the 2008 U.S. Open when he was 32, though he continued to win regular tournaments until 2013, when a chronic back problem reared its painful head.
Now healthy again, Woods is seeking to put it all back together, both physically and mentally, as he tries to mount a comeback and end his five-year victory drought.
“The comeback is much tougher than the initial climb to the top, and the toughest part of the comeback is believing in yourself,” Curtis told Reuters at Shinnecock Hills on Friday as Woods was on his way to missing the halfway cut.
“He seemed to be doing that of recent week or months. It’s got to be hugely disappointing for him yesterday.”
Strange was referring to the eight-over-par 78 Woods shot in Thursday’s first round, his worst-ever score at a U.S. Open.
Strange, in his role as a television analyst, walked all 18 holes with Woods and watched in astonishment as the player triple-bogeyed the first hole.
“It’s tough to work so hard and prepare so hard, and probably in his mind have such great expectations and make triple bogey on the first hole.
“In my life I never did that, so I really can’t put myself in his shoes, but I must say it would be very, very tough to stay up, keep the energy up.”
Strange was impressed with the way Woods steadied himself for a time, until a four-putt at the 13th hole undid all the hard work he had done to steady the ship.
“He leveled off and was playing pretty well until the four-putt at 13. That took probably an incredible amount of energy out of him.”
Strange never had to deal with a potentially career-ending injury in the way Woods has, but nonetheless battled for consistent excellence after falling short in his quest in 1990 to become the first player to win three straight U.S. Opens.
So when did Strange, interviewed as part of his role as a golf testimonee for Rolex, a partner of the U.S. Golf Association since 1980, suspect that his best golf was behind him? And when did he know for sure?
“I did play some good golf after (1990) but it was sporadic,” said Strange, a fiery competitor whose intensity was not unlike that of Woods.
“I had a tough time getting up for practice and for Thursday and Fridays.
“It was three or four years after that that I realized this is the way it is.
“Because by that time I was getting to be 38 or 39. So you’re not going to get a whole lot better at 38 or 39.”
Not that Strange is ready to write off Woods yet.
“If he does win again that will do wonders for his confidence. That might propel him to do really well.
“But you have to do two things. You have to drive the ball better than he drives the ball. He only hits half the fairways.
“You’re not going to beat many people doing that. And he’s been struggling on the greens, but he’ll get that back.”
Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by Ian Chadband