By Michael Vlismas
It was a critical moment for Retief Goosen. He was lying on a hospital bed being wheeled into theatre for surgery to a back that had completely failed him and threatened to end his career. And that’s when Goosen realised he wanted more. Not more golf. More life.
‘Before I went in for the surgery I said to my wife Tracy that if it’s a success I must try to make the most of it by doing things off the golf course. I couldn’t do those things. I couldn’t play with the kids because I was always too scared I’d hurt my back and couldn’t swing a club,’ Goosen says as he thinks back to that time in 2012.
That surgery started a journey to the point where he is now. At the age of 47, Goosen has decided that for the first time he wants to take his eye off that little white ball just a bit. ‘I’ve spent 20 odd years making a living. Now I’d like to try to make a life.’
And he’s starting with homework.
Kids hate it, but professional golfers who are dads love it. If they’re doing homework with their children, it means they’re getting the one thing their money and fame cannot buy them. Family time.
‘I’m spending more time at home with Tracy and the kids, which is nice. I’m trying to be the dad the kids didn’t have for a while. You know, being on the road all the time you don’t have that chance to take the kids to school and so on, or even do homework with them.’
He’s learning that school homework has progressed a bit since he was riding a bicycle around Pietersburg (now Polokwane).
‘The stuff the kids learn these days is a bit higher than when I was at school. I try to help out wherever I can. In a way I’m getting educated all over again. I’ve just been used to counting from one to five all my life, and anything above five is not good.’
But this comfortable point in a career of two US Opens, two European Tour Order of Merit titles, six years in the top 10 on the Official World Golf Ranking, and 43 professional titles worldwide did not come overnight. The surgery was a great success. A little too successful actually, considering what Goosen’s expectations were.
‘I had reached a stage where I physically couldn’t play any more. I couldn’t even put my socks on in the morning. I couldn’t get to my feet. I was in so much pain constantly. Painkillers are just not for me. That kind of stuff makes you more and more depressed. For any sportsman it’s frustrating having an injury and you just can’t commit. Your confidence goes. Your mind goes a bit because you can’t perform the way you know you can. I got to a point where I said I can’t play now, so if the surgery is a success, then great. If it’s not, well, I’m back to where I started.
‘But after the surgery I felt so good. My back felt so good that suddenly I expected to play great. I was very hard on myself. I didn’t play well, so I got more and more frustrated. My priorities with the family weren’t where they should be.
‘That’s when I looked at it all and decided I’ve had a good career. I don’t have anything more to prove. I’m just going to enjoy playing for as many more years as I want to and spend as much time with the family in the meantime.’
With Leo aged 13 and taking a keen interest in golf, and Ella aged 11 and loving having her dad around more, it’s a good time for Goosen as the family even plans a trip back to South Africa this winter.
‘It’s been about 20 years since I’ve been back to South Africa in the winter and I’m looking forward to that. And I’ve seen a big change in my daughter and her attitude towards me. In the past it was all about mommy because I was never there to help her out as much. I’m looking forward to having as much time as I can with the family.’
Goosen has always been a man who likes to be busy. If he wasn’t a professional golfer he would’ve become an architect. He’s helped design and build many of the family’s homes over the years, and even fits the cupboards himself.
‘I love being busy at home – fixing things and painting. I like looking after my stuff and keeping busy that way. I get to the gym a lot. My boy is getting into golf so now when I want time off I’ve got to go to the range to teach him. He’s hitting the ball fairly well and his game is coming along nicely.’
Goosen’s focus has also been more on his wine business – Fine Wines by The Goose.
‘The wine business has been tough but it looks like it’s starting to turn. We restructured the business and things are starting to look up in America and the Far East. We also have a few nice contracts in Europe. So it’s slowly turning in the right direction. It was a bit of a headache for a while. But Goose Wines is boutique. It’s not a massive operation. It’s been good to have more time to focus on that now too.’
You almost cannot imagine Goosen ever struggling with balance in his life, such is his calm nature on the golf course. Even in the cauldron of the most stringent test in golf – the US Open – he has been hailed for his ability to keep his head while all about him are losing theirs.
This was the backbone of his two US Open titles on typically brutal golf courses at Southern Hills in 2001 and Shinnecock in 2004.
And when he speaks about the challenge that awaits at Oakmont this year, you can almost hear his delight.
‘The thing about US Opens on tough golf courses is that par is a good score. Some tournaments par is a bad score and you get frustrated not making birdie on every hole, but in a US Open a par can see you gain some shots on the field.
‘I always play better on the tougher courses because I know certain players will give up before the tournament has even started because they know it’s so tough. I know some of the players are out of it already.
‘The last time I played Oakmont was when Ángel Cabrera won . I played with him in the first couple of rounds and he hit the ball unbelievably well. It’s a tough course. It’s visually intimidating and there are a lot of blind shots where it’s difficult to visualise targets. The rough will be punishing, and we’ll be hitting drivers on par threes. It’s going to be tough. But that’s a US Open; it borders on being an unplayable golf course. I like that.’
Goosen has had a fairly solid 2016 season thus far. As at the middle of May, he’d played 10 events on the PGA Tour, missed only one cut and had three finishes within the top 25.
‘I’ve had a few events where I’ve played well but just didn’t finish off well. I’ve had a few weeks where the results could have been better but I’ve struggled in the third or fourth rounds.
‘But overall I feel fairly good about my game. I would say my putting has improved this year. My chipping is probably something I need to work on. But you know, if you focus less on the game and practising, your chipping can go off. It’s just something you need to stay on top of.”
It’s a year he’s also looking forward to in terms of the Olympic Games, but for a different reason. Goosen is a fan of the Olympics and enjoys watching the variety of sport on offer.
‘I enjoy watching the Olympics. I’ve always enjoyed it. It only comes around once every four years and it would’ve been nice to add that to my career. I was a little disappointed to see Charl [Schwartzel] and Louis [Oosthuizen] pull out of the Olympics. Hopefully when they come around again in four years’ time they’ll be in a position to want to qualify.’
In between watching rhythmic gymnastics, working a bit on his game and maybe revamping the kitchen cupboards, there will be homework to do. And while he may never have believed it before, Goosen is fine with that. He’s starting to learn more about things beyond the narrow range of 1-5. And he’s finding the numbers are all adding up quite nicely.
END OF YEAR RANKING
(Ranking as at 16 May 2016)