Retief Goosen, one of the quiet men of golf, has reached a significant milestone – turning 50. GRANT WINTER looks back at his brilliance down the years for Compleat Golfer.
For most, turning 50 is a not-so-gentle reminder that we are indeed mortal and time is running out.
For top professional golfers fortunate enough to be exempt on the PGA Tour Champions, though, 50 is a kind of stay of execution – a new beginning almost. It gives that golfer a good number of years to remain competitive and – as the saying goes – ‘print your own money’, since the Tour is not only lucrative, but for the most part there are no cuts, so there’s a guaranteed cheque every week. Man, it’s birdie-huntin’, par-bustin’ dollar mania over there in America!
And making his debut on the PGA Tour Champions is our own Retief Goosen, who came into this world on 3 February 1969. ‘I’m really chuffed about this,’ says ‘the Goose’. ‘To compete against these old guys who can still shoot the lights out is not only going to be a challenge but hopefully a lot of fun too.’
Hundreds or even thousands of over-50s try and almost to the man fail to qualify for the PGA Tour Champions each year. It’s that competitive, that exclusive. It’s almost a closed shop. But because of his impressive record in world golf, including his two US Open wins, Goosen is fully exempt and eligible to play in the 27 events that remain between now and December.
And one of those tournaments is the US Senior Open at the Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame in California in June, the same week in which he will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, joining Ernie Els, Gary Player and Bobby Locke as the only South Africans in this august body.
The Goose qualifies as a Hall of Famer because of his outstanding record on the fairways of the world since turning professional in 1990, and his close to 40 victories in the paid ranks.
But he will always look back at his 1995 South African Open success at Randpark in Johannesburg as a turning point in his career, one in which he proved to himself that he belonged on the big stage. It was only his third victory as a professional, the previous two being in smaller ‘winter tour’ events in South Africa. And it led to a newspaper headline of ‘Sleepless Night, Dream Day’.
Goosen eagled the closing hole on what is now the Firethorn course for a five-shot win on 13-under-par 275. After he’d sunk the winning putt, he revealed he’d hardly slept the night before what was then the biggest victory of his career. ‘I was pretty nervous on the 1st tee at the start of the final round and throughout the day had to keep telling myself to calm down. And,’ he added, ‘having the world’s best player breathing down my neck only added to the pressure. But it turned out to be a dream day.’
That player snapping at his heels happened to be none other than Els, who was world No 1 after winning the US Open and World Match Play Championship in 1994. Goosen three-putted only once in the tournament and sealed victory with a magnificent eagle-three at the 18th – then a par-five, now a brutal par-four – in the final round. He rifled a 1-iron down the middle, then a 5-iron to a metre from the cup before rolling in the putt to prevail by five from Els and Mark McNulty.
And if there was one championship triumph that has defined his career, it was the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills. Let’s take a look back at what transpired that week on Long Island, New York. It was a Major that America were convinced would be won by their beloved Phil Mickelson, but the Goose had other ideas.
If you, like me, watched the television broadcast that year you might recall some of this: ‘Everybody’s with you, Phil. Everybody’s with you, baby,’ one woman shouted.
‘Go Phil, go Phil, go Phil – you’re the man!’ hollered the many thousands of fans jam-packed behind the ropes for the final round to witness their ever-smiling American hero, tournament leader ‘Phil The Thrill’, capture his second straight Major just a couple of months after outgunning Els by a stroke at a dramatic Masters at Augusta National.
Only trouble is, Mickelson didn’t win. Goosen – his closest challenger – wiped the smile off Lefty’s face and silenced a 35 000-strong gallery who had been so loud in their cheering of their man they appeared ready to explode.
US commentators Johnny Miller and co seemed to be doing their best to will Retief into defeat. At the par-four 13th, our boy was in the rough short and left of the green, facing a chip to a green so hard and so fast that – according to Miller – it was an ‘impossible’ shot. ‘There’s no way he can throw it up and stop it. No way.’ Goose responded by executing a little bit of magic that was so good it defied description. He left the ball about six feet from the pin and rolled it in to save par. It was one of 11 one-putt greens for him in the round of his life.
Still, Mickelson led by one through 16 holes.
Then the unthinkable happened. The seemingly unflappable southpaw double-bogeyed the par-three 17th by bunkering his tee shot before three-putting from pretty much nowhere.
At about the same time Goose was coolly knocking in a 12-footer for birdie at 16 – effectively a three-shot swing in a matter of minutes. Still, Miller and his cohorts couldn’t face the prospect of Lefty losing. So now they were clutching at straws. ‘Mickelson can birdie 18, and Goosen drop a shot … then we’ll have a playoff!’ they exclaimed.
It never happened. From the same trap at 17 where Mickelson had hit his ball, Goosen engineered a superb up-and-down to save par, before making a rock-solid four at the last to win by two with a final-round 71 and four-under-par 276 aggregate. Back home in South Africa, we danced in front of our TV sets at 1:30am on a frosty Monday morning in June. It was Goosen’s second US Open in four years after his success in 2001 and a fourth victory by a South African in the event inside 11 years after wins by Els in 1994 and 1997. The Goose’s work with his long-irons, his wedges and especially his putter was sublime.
Like the Big Easy, Goosen has given us loads of fond memories over the years. Another that stands out is his ’10 out of 10’, teaming up with Els and David Frost, in South Africa’s back-to-back Alfred Dunhill Cup victories at St Andrews in the late-1990s. The golfing Boks beat Sweden 2-1 in the 1997 final and Spain 3-0 the following year to again lift the trophy.
Significantly, Goosen won all five of his medal match play ties each year. ‘I guess we can say we now rule the world,’ said an elated Els after the 1998 final in which – in biting-cold, gale-force winds – Goosen edged Santiago Luna 72-73, Els defeated Jose Maria Olazabal 75-77 and Frost accounted for Miguel Angel Jimenez 76-78, ‘and Retief has been our trump card. To win 10 out of 10 the past two years is just phenomenal’.
Els was also tickled pink when South Africa beat New Zealand in the 1997 semi-finals, Goosen the team’s star with a 67-72 demolition of Michael Long. ‘It’s always good to get one over the “All Blacks”,’ he joked. ‘Today I was the eighthman, Frostie my scrumhalf and Goose was literally flying out on the wing!’
Another highlight was when Goosen partnered Els to win the 2001 World Cup in Japan after a four-team sudden-death playoff against Denmark, New Zealand and a powerful United States lineup of Tiger Woods and David Duval, who was world No 1 at the time, after a tie at the top on 24-under-par 264. In the final-day foursomes the South African pair eagled the par-five 18th at Taiheiyo Golf Club in Gotemba.
Els hit the fairway with a booming drive, Goosen smashed a dream 5-iron to 2.5m and Els rolled in the putt. That clutch eagle for a superb 66 got them into the playoff, and they sealed victory at the second extra hole. ‘I’ve lost a couple of playoffs to Tiger in the past, but I had the Golden Goose with me today so it worked out this time,’ is how Els summed it up.
Goosen spent 250 weeks in the top 10 in the world between 2001 and 2007, rising to No 2 at one stage.
He topped the European Tour Order of Merit in 2001 and 2002, while 2004 was a particularly big year for him with wins at the US Open, the Nedbank Golf Challenge and the Tour Championship at treacherous East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. There he made up no less than eight strokes on the great Woods, co-leader with Jay Haas after 54 holes, with a brilliant last-day 64 to win by four. It was one of the game’s greatest rounds.
Thanks for all the fond memories, Retief. And now it’s starting all over. The likes of Langer, Couples, Montgomerie, Jimenez, Lehman and Love better look sharp!
– This article first appeared in the February issue of Compleat Golfer