- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Golf’s Goose is more like a vulture.

With the game’s best moaning about playing conditions at crusty Shinnecock Hills yesterday, South Africa’s Retief Goosen swooped down and snatched the Slam spoils. Adding a second U.S. Open title to his resume, Goosen putted his way to a final-round 71 for a two-stroke victory over Masters champion Phil Mickelson and a fading field at the 104th U.S. Open.

“It turned out to be my day,” said Goosen (276) after only he and Mickelson emerged from the USGA’s four-day testament to attrition under par on the 6,996-yard, par-70 layout. “Just before I teed off, they were going on about how the average score was like 78 on the television, so I knew we were in for a surprise.”

The surprise was a desiccated set of greens which rejected all but the softest of shots and yielded an average score of 78.73, the highest in an Open finale since 1972 (78.8 at Pebble Beach).

“They lost it,” said Tiger Woods of the USGA’s control over the course after carding a final-round 76 to finish tied for 17th at 10 over. “I know you want to identify the best players. There’s nothing wrong with it being hard and difficult, but don’t make it so difficult it’s unfair.”

While Woods and a field which couldn’t manage one sub-par round screamed, Goosen shrugged. As a personality, the 35-year-old Goosen might be as dry as the scorched course which greeted the field for yesterday’s finale. But what the gods withheld in charisma, they repaid in guts and one of the game’s coolest constitutions. Goosen never barked about the baked-out greens. And he wasn’t ruffled by the fact that nearly all of the 50,000 fans on the property were willing Mickelson to become just the fifth player in history to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same season.

Perhaps when you’ve been nearly killed by lightning at age 15, a few dicey greens and some raucous fans don’t really rate on the stressmeter.

“I respect that [Mickelson’s] a great player and everyone wants him to win,” said Goosen of the partisan crowd. “But I just block it out and do my own thing.”

Goosen’s thing is putting, pure and simple. Where others see cups, Goosen sees manholes. He dazzled the field with his shortstick at Southern Hills in the 2001 U.S. Open. And he did the same yesterday, mocking plausibility with 11 one-putts, including a back-nine display of clutch putting that suggested nothing short of witchcraft.

Goosen’s magical stretch run with the flat stick started on No.13, the same hole on which Lefty began his assault on the South African’s lead. Playing one group ahead, Mickelson birdied the 13th from 25 feet to reach 2 under and shave Goosen’s lead to two strokes. Goosen followed with a cosmic par — block right into the fescue, yank left into the fescue, flop wedge from death to six feet, one putt.

After similarly butchering the 14th from tee-to-green, he made a miraculous 18-footer for bogey, losing only one stroke off his lead as he slipped to 3 under.

Mickelson then passed his quarry with birdies at Nos.15 and 16 to reach 4 under and send Shinnecock’s galleries into hysteria. But Goosen calmly matched Mickelson’s birdie at the par-5 16th from 12 feet to square the game.

And then as he’s done so many times before at the majors, Mickelson imploded. After bunkering his approach to the par-3 17th, Mickelson blasted out to six feet above the hole, pushed the slick par putt, pulled the 6-foot comebacker and tapped in for a door-slamming double bogey.

“After I birdied No.16 I had a one shot lead, and I thought it was going to be my day,” said the 34-year-old Mickelson, somewhat shellshocked after a 71. “Then on 17, I don’t know what to say. I hit a really easy putt. I mean I just touched it. It shouldn’t have gone six feet by. … I don’t know what to say. I played some of the best golf of my life and still couldn’t shoot par. It’s just as disappointing as it was thrilling to win the Masters.”

Suddenly leading by two strokes after Mickelson’s meltdown on the 17th, Goosen put the final exclamation point on his outrageous scrambling exhibition, nearly jarring his sand shot from almost the identical location in the bunker from which Mickelson made double bogey. A tap-in at No.17 and rare two-putt par at No.18, and Goosen had become one of 21 multiple Open winners.

Goosen’s back-nine numbers were almost absurd. He hit three greens but shot level par 35 thanks to seven one-putts.

“At Southern Hills I was putting just as good,” said Goosen. “Obviously, these greens were drying out and getting bumpy. To keep holing good putts was the key. … Lucky for me, things went my way.”

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