ERNIE ELS first met Retief Goosen in 1982, when they were 13. They served together in the South African air force and today are neighbors in George, South Africa, as well as in London and Orlando.
SI: Some say Goosen was outgoing as a kid but changed after being hit by lightning at age 13.
EE: To me, Retief has always been a quiet and well-mannered guy. He used to have these huge glasses. He was quite a sight.
SI: Was he always shy?
EE: I was very similar. We come from Afrikaans backgrounds, and in those days the entire golfing community was English-speaking. As an Afrikaner kid you didn't socialize with English kids. We tended to stick to ourselves.
SI: Brendan Pappas, who also grew up with Goosen, says that when you and Retief played, you always got the better of him.
EE: Most of the time I had a perfect grip on the boys. Kind of like Tiger had on us for a while. There was one year--1986 or '87--when Retief became difficult to handle.
SI: How often do you see each other?
EE: We get together more when we're away from the Tour. He's definitely warmer and more talkative away from the course. Our nannies are good friends. My kids are at his place a lot, and his kids come to mine. We've known each other for a very long time and can speak from the heart about things. We're very comfortable with each other, and when he lets his hair down, he's a true South African. South Africans are like Americans in many ways. We're sporting people, we love the outdoors and like to have a good time.
SI: When you're socializing at Lake Nona, in Orlando, do any other Tour players join you?
EE: Sergio [García] pops his head in. Sergio's quite a busybody.
SI: Should the Big Four really be the Big Five?
EE: It rolls off the tongue better. We have the big five in South Africa with the lion, the leopard, the elephant, the rhino and the hippo.
SI: Is there a tiger in there?
EE: No. Too bad, the tiger's not included.
SI: Goosen would be the rhino?
EE: Maybe. Retief would be the quieter guy who packs a punch.
SI: Was Jos Vantisphout's sports-psychology work with Goosen at the 2001 U.S. Open the turning point of his career?
EE: Definitely. The year before, he was really close to doing good stuff in Europe and finished very high on the Order of Merit. Jos has had a huge impact on Retief's life and his golf. He has given him more belief in his abilities.
SI: What was it like being together in the final twosome of last year's U.S. Open?
EE: He'd won one, and I'd won two, and I was playing well. I was running out of gas a little bit, I must admit, but I still felt good. No disrespect to the other guys, but to have that happen--two South Africans playing in the final group of the U.S. Open--was history for us, and I felt that one of us was destined to win. It turned out to be Retief. That was clear from the very first hole, when I made a double and he made a birdie. --C.L.
Although he lost to Goosen, Els is proud of the South African history they made last year at Shinnecock.