PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA | He had just come in from playing golf at nearby Cypress Point and, he reported, he had started well. “I was 4 under after six holes,” Retief Goosen said. “Mind you, I was 4 under after 18 too, thanks to two double bogeys.”
The highlights of this friendly round were his birdies at Cypress’s two short holes on the back nine. Slipping quickly into the sort of precis he would give at the end of a round in a tournament, he said: “Nine-iron to 4 feet on the 15th and 3-rescue to 20 feet on the 16th. Holed ’em both.
“We were behind Trevino and Watson,” Goosen continued with a slight smile. “You could hear what Trevino was saying even though he was in the group ahead. His comments came back to us on the wind. It was great.”
That’s the Retief Goosen we remember, a big powerful man with a long stride and a measured tread, the man who turned 50 four months ago is now playing on the PGA Tour Champions. On his day, Goosen rarely seemed flustered and could hole putts with astonishing regularity on greens that confounded his rivals. Others had golden swings, golden short games, golden iron play. At times, Goosen had a golden putter. When he won his second US Open, at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, he single-putted 11 greens in his final round, a 71.
So the relevant question to ask Goosen is why he was such a good putter? How had he become such a wizard on the greens, a fiend with the flat stick? He had hinted at the answer the night before when he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, one of three men and two women in the class of 2019 at a 90-minute ceremony that had taken place in Carmel and was transmitted on Golf Channel.
It was partly due to growing up on a small golf course in central South Africa that was not blessed with a lot of money with which to nourish the course. “We had greens that were green when we had rain and brown when we didn’t,” he had said in his acceptance speech the previous night. Now he expanded on that.
“The greens I grew up on were never really quick greens but in the winter they went dormant, like Bermuda grass,” he said. “The grass died out and so down slopes they got extremely quick because there was no growth. You’d have putts with 10 feet of break on them. They probably only got up to I would say 14 (on the Stimpmeter) but that’s about as quick as they ever were. Otherwise they were generally about nine or 10.”
When a golfer says that he considers a green speed of 14 to be never really that quick it is clear he is exceptional. For many players greens of that speed would be terrifying, almost unputtable. The memorable words of a player at Augusta National years ago come to mind. “It was like putting down a marble staircase and stopping the ball on the bottom step.”
So an exceptional putting ability was one of the keys to Goosen’s success and contributed to his 34 tournament victories worldwide and led to his spending more than 250 weeks ranked in the world’s top 10 players from 2001 to 2007. Another was a calmness. Nothing seemed to rattle him. Others around him might be losing their heads but he was in control. At least he gave that impression.
“As a kid I was pretty good at getting angry. I had a pretty bad temper as a junior. I remember once breaking three clubs in nine holes, snapping the shafts. Dad told me: ‘No more pocket money for you.’ Then I started behaving.” – Retief Goosen
“My first US Open win (in 2001 at Southern Hills) was very nervy,” Goosen said. “This is the first time I’m on this big stage and it showed on the 72nd hole where I lost my concentration for a minute. I hit a great drive off the tee and probably the best 6-iron of my life up the hill to 18 feet. That green they never cut all week.
“I had a putt I thought was a little slower than normal and whacked it 2½ or 3 feet past and misread it. I thought it was a straight putt. I missed it and then my head was gone. That third putt was the hardest to make. I was shaking, my flipping mind was everywhere. What happens if I miss this thing? Luckily for me it went in and got me into a playoff the next day.
“That night after I got to my room, had something to eat, I actually felt pretty good.” He spoke to Jos Vanstiphout, the sports psychologist who worked mainly on the European Tour, for just a few minutes that night and Vanstiphout said later he knew immediately Goosen’s mind was clear and that he would win the next day.
“I knew I was putting great besides that one hole,” Goosen said. “I said to myself, I have just got this one guy to beat.” That “one guy” was Mark Brooks, and Goosen did indeed beat Brooks the next day.
That was when Goosen’s calmness became obvious – and it wasn’t a gift he had been given at birth. “As a kid I was pretty good at getting angry. I had a pretty bad temper as a junior. I remember once breaking three clubs in nine holes, snapping the shafts. Dad told me: ‘No more pocket money for you.’ Then I started behaving.”
Something else in addition to disciplinary measures from his father contributed to transforming Goosen from a fiery junior to a man with an almost preternatural calm about him. It is a method not to be recommended. Playing golf with his cousin during his mid-teens, he was struck by lightning so badly that his clothes were burned off his body, he collapsed to the ground covered in blood and he was in hospital for eight weeks afterwards.
Being hit by lightning and surviving is bound to affect a person. After that nothing can seem so formidable and certainly not a downhill, twisting putt on a lightning-fast green. It changed Goosen. “He emerged from hospital a much humbler and quieter person,” Annetjie, his mother, said.
So the secret to winning two major titles and becoming one of the world’s best competitors is clear: grow up playing on greens with a Stimpmeter reading of 14 and then get struck by lightning. It probably won’t work for everyone but it certainly worked for Goosen.
Rolex ambassador Retief Goosen of South Africa during the first round of the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie. Photo: Warren Little, R&A via Getty Images
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