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Silent Assassin

What more does a player like Retief Goosen need to do to be taken seriously?

At the Tour Championship, the final official event of the year, we learned two things: Tiger Woods is still Tiger Woods--but only at times; and as easy as it is to overlook Retief Goosen, the unassuming 35year-old from South Africa is a bona fide force in the game. "In a way, I like that," Goosen says of the lack of expectations placed on him. "I hang around under the radar. Nobody is bothering me for interviews. I show up and play, and then hopefully on Sunday pick up the check and go home."

That's what he did at East Lake, in Atlanta, after shooting an 11under 269, including a final-round 64 to come from four strokes down to third-round leaders Woods and Jay Haas and win by four. "I said I'm probably going to need to shoot seven- or eight-under to win it," Goosen said, "so it was my mind-set to pretty much go at it."

Goosen's killer instinct combined with his calm under fire were on display earlier this summer. In June he shot a final-round 71 that included only 24 putts in ridiculously difficult conditions at Shinnecock Hills to snatch the U.S. Open from Phil Mickelson. Although everyone on the East End of Long Island, with the possible exception of Tracy Goosen, Retief's wife of three years, was pulling for Lefty, the Goose never flinched.

Woods, however, uncharacteristically did at East Lake. Although he shot back-to-back rounds of 64 and 65 on Friday and Saturday and showed flashes of his old brilliance--like the 203yard eight-iron shot over a stand of trees that stopped pin-high, turning a certain bogey into a spectacular birdie on the 16th hole in the second round--for only the third time in his career he lost after holding the 54hole lead, finishing second with a 72 on Sunday.

In prime position to claim his first stroke-play title in more than a year, Woods was on the defensive beginning at the 1st green, where he knocked his first putt 15 feet past the cup (but holed the comebacker for par). He was three over through the first seven holes, giving Goosen all the encouragement he needed to surge from behind.

Woods admits that 2004 has been a disappointing year and that his confidence level isn't what it was four seasons ago. "No. How can it be?" he said. On the other hand, he spun his runner-up performance at East Lake as his biggest step forward since he started making changes in his swing early this season. "The great thing is, I knew what I was doing [wrong today] and fixed it most of the time," Woods said. "Things are headed in the right direction. I simply need to keep taking steps like this."

The task for Tiger won't get any easier. He has to fend off Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, who shot a final-round 65 to finish ninth, and now a surging Goosen, too. "Tiger and Vijay and Ernie, they're probably in a different league with the number of tournaments they've won and things like that," Goosen says. "They've been on Tour here a little bit longer, and people know them a little bit better, but I think that with a couple more years of good play, it might be a different story." --Gary Van Sickle

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Goosen has quietly moved up to fourth in the World Ranking.