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Original Issue

Cooked Goose

The Open was Retief Goosen's to lose, and thanks largely to a balky putter, the two-time champion obliged with a colossal collapse

As expected, Retief Goosen walked off the 18th green at Pinehurst's fierce No. 2 course a winner on Sunday afternoon at the 105th United States Open. Oh, he didn't leave with his third Open title and the trophy that goes with it. He just left with a side-bet victory. Goosen and the all-too-appropriately named Jason Gore were paired in the final gruesome twosome, and the two looked like the losers at the running of the bulls in Pamplona. So when they got to the 16th tee, Goosen suggested that they play for something over the last three holes, just to make it interesting, so to speak. "He messed up on the last [green]," Goosen said, "and I won the five bucks."

There wasn't much else on the bright side of the ledger for the quiet South African known as the Goose. While this Open ultimately will be remembered as the one that Michael Campbell kept Tiger Woods from winning, right now the freshest impression is that this is the Open Goosen gave away. There was no escape from that conclusion or from the prying media either. As Goosen emptied his locker on Sunday evening after tirelessly rehashing his round with reporters, he told one persistent scribe, "I'm on my way out--there's nothing much to say," only to be followed into the restroom by the reporter.

No, there's no way to put a smiley face on Goosen's final-round score--81. Not after he hit 11 of 14 fairways and 16 greens on the first day in a dazzling display of precision ball striking; appeared to be in total control of the Open for three days; and had a three-shot lead going into the final round of a major championship that he had won in two of the last four years. And not when Woods was an almost-safe six shots back and barely visible in Goosen's rearview mirror at the start of the last round. It's just not what was expected of one of golf's Big Five, the elite group of players who stand apart from the rest of the world's finest. Even Woods admitted as much, saying, "I never would have guessed that Goose would have done what he did."

There have been final-round meltdowns before. Gil Morgan was the last 54-hole Open leader to shoot 81, playing at windswept Pebble Beach in 1992. Two shots back, Ernie Els shot 80 in last year's Open at Shinnecock Hills. Greg Norman squandered a six-shot lead at the 1996 Masters. Now Goosen, seemingly on his way to becoming the sixth man to win at least three Opens, joins them, having gone out in 41 before then stringing together five straight bogeys on the back nine. Pinehurst's No. 2 course played tough in the last round--the field's average score was 74.46, almost 41/2 over par--but 81? From the Goose?

"Well, that ought to bring into crystal clarity how difficult the conditions were," said Olin Browne, who played in the next-to-last pairing with winner Michael Campbell and shot 80. "A player of that stature, who was in apparent control of every facet of his game, got his ass handed to him, much like the rest of us. That's just the nature of this game. Take a look at the scoreboard. How many 80s were there? [Nine.] There wasn't a single 80 [on Saturday]. It was a bloodbath out there, the best players in the world shooting 76, 78, 79, 80. It was an absolute.... I can't even say what it was. It's not printable."

The final pairing's scores were more suitable for cricket than golf, Goosen told Gore, who shot 84, in a bit of gallows humor. Goosen tied for 11th; Gore, the tournament's adopted underdog, fell to 49th. "This bloody golf course gives you no room for error," Gore said, trying to explain how the Goose got cooked. "If you're just a little bit off, if you don't hit every fairway, you're going to struggle. If I play this bad on a normal golf course, I shoot 73."

If only Goosen hadn't looked so unflappable in the third round, when he pulled away to that sudden three-shot lead. "I would've liked a 12-shot lead," Goosen said prophetically on Saturday evening. "Three shots are nothing around this course."

The truth of that remark had been evident earlier in the day when his two-shot advantage on the 12th tee turned into a one-shot deficit two holes later. Goosen bogeyed the 12th, then sent his chip shot at the 13th hole trundling off the front of the green en route to a double bogey. He regained the lead at the next hole with an unlikely birdie after a drive into a fairway bunker, and when he followed up with birdies at 15 and 18, Goosen had the look of a champion. He was one of only two players to break par in the third round, and the other, Peter Jacobsen, who also shot 69, had to make a hole in one to do it.

On Sunday, Goosen needed only three holes to make his lead vanish. His downward spiral began with his approach shot from the fairway at the 2nd hole. Between clubs Goosen tried to fade a soft six-iron shot to the green, but he blocked it to the right. He was left with what he termed "a simple chip," but "the club bounced on the ground and the ball came shooting out with no spin," said Goosen, who made a double bogey on the hole. "That was that, really. I couldn't make a putt to save my life. I messed up badly. I obviously threw this away."

The man who one-putted a dozen greens--including the last six--on Sunday at Shinnecock Hills in his Open victory last year needed 36 putts for the finale at Pinehurst, more than anyone in the field. "I couldn't find a hole on the greens," Goosen said. "If I didn't misread it, I had the wrong pace. I missed a putt on number 9 by five inches. I haven't putted this badly in a long time."

He failed to birdie the par-5 10th, missed another chance at the 11th and then flew his drive into thick rough at the 12th hole, from where he had no chance. "Then it was basically bleeding all the way in," Goosen said. "After 12, I was on a walk trying to finish and go home."

The day began wonderfully. Goosen was treated to a breakfast in bed of scrambled eggs and bacon. His wife, Tracy, gave him a precious Father's Day gift: bronze molds of the tiny hands of their children--Leo, 2, and Ella, seven months. "I had a great Father's Day this morning with the kids," Goosen said. "It's only a game at the end of the day. We carry on. You come back tomorrow and tee it up again and keep trying. That's all you can do."

As strange as it may sound, the collapse may help Goosen's image. One measure of his anonymity came last Thursday when the Goosen family went to a bustling restaurant after the first round and, despite the thousands of golf fans swarming around Pinehurst, he was hit up for only a few autographs. Many writers skipped his defending champion's pretournament press conference earlier in the week--only two or three dozen attended in a room that seats almost 200--but he scored points with the media by talking at length about his final-round meltdown.

Fans seemed to sympathize, too. When he tapped in his final putt for par on the 18th hole, having blown a major championship bid as badly as anyone in recent history, Goosen drew loud applause and cheers, and the fans in several sections in the upper grandstands rose to their feet, clapping. A teenager shouted from behind the green, "You're still the man, Retief."

Goosen lost this U.S. Open, yes, but he didn't leave without winning something.

If only Goosen hadn't looked so unflappable on Saturday. "I would've liked a 12-SHOT LEAD," he said. "Three shots are nothing on this course."


Photograph by Robert Beck


Goosen had nine bogeys on Sunday, three more than he had in his first three rounds combined.




Gore turned in the highest score of the weekend on Sunday and plummeted from second to 49th.