- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y.

Don’t talk to New Yorkers about tough. Tough is seeing your two tallest buildings toppled by terrorists — and then spending the next year sorting through the wreckage. Tough isn’t having to deal with a dried out golf course in the U.S. Open. Heck, in this neck of the woods, that’s just a minor inconvenience.

A lot of players did a lot of whining after the final round of the Open yesterday. Leading the pack was Tiger Woods, who sniffed, after finishing 10 over par, that “this is not the way [golf] is supposed to be played,” that “the golf course got out of control” and waah, waah, waah.

While he was saying this, though, the players who were actually in the tournament were going unflappably about their business. You want tough? Retief Goosen, the champion, and Phil Mickelson, the dogged runner-up — these were the true tough guys at Shinnecock Hills, the guys who found a way to keep their score around par yesterday under the most nerve-jangling pressure imaginable.

While much of the field wound up shooting in the 80s in the rugged conditions, Goosen and Mickelson persevered their way to 71s. And with every swing of the club down the stretch — every one-putt green by Retief, every dead-on approach shot by Lefty — they seemed to be mocking those who griped that the course couldn’t be played, that the mean ol’ USGA had ruined Our Championship once again.

Remarkably, they both ended up under par for the championship — Goosen at 4 under, Mickelson, after double-bogeying 17, at 2 under. In the past two Opens at Shinnecock only 1986 winner Ray Floyd accomplished such a feat (Corey Pavin finished even par in 1995). Yesterday’s duel on the back nine, moreover, was every bit as riveting (though without as many fireworks, perhaps) as Phil’s battle with Ernie Els at the Masters.

This time, though, Lefty didn’t have quite enough shots in his bag. He was fabulous, just not fabulous enough. And his third second-place finish in the Open — his third sole second — left him with a particularly empty feeling. As he put it, “When you play so hard for 72 holes and come up short. … I don’t know what to say. I played some of the best golf of my life and couldn’t shoot par [yesterday].”

The New York galleries that adopted him at Bethpage two years ago tried their darnedest to root him home yesterday. The shouts they let out when Mickelson birdied 13, 15 and 16 to take a one-shot lead all but ruptured eardrums. Goosen couldn’t help but hear them, of course. “I know how popular a player he is and how everybody wants him to win,” he said. “I just tried to block all that out and play my own round of golf.”

At that point, Phil allowed himself to wonder if “maybe this is going to be the day [he finally wins the Open],” he said. Alas, it was the most fleeting of thoughts. He three-putted from six feet on the next hole, and his dreams of a Grand Slam went poof.

Mostly, though, it was Goosen who beat him. The same Goosen who was struck by lightning as a teenager — and went on to win the 2001 Open at Southern Hills. Retief’s backbone is as admirable as his backswing, and if he were American instead of South African, the New York crowds surely would have yelled themselves hoarse for him, too.

Tiger and Co. might have been intimidated by Shinnecock, but not Goosen. He kept pulling out his driver all week, refusing to be spooked by the slim fairways and dense rough. “I played pretty aggressive,” he said — and fortunately, it didn’t cost him like it did so many others. He kept his ball in play and put on a putting exhibition for the ages, needing just 11 putts on the incoming nine Friday and again yesterday.

And to think Goosen is remembered as much as anything for missing a 2-foot putt on the 72nd hole of the ‘01 Open, landing him in a playoff with Mark Brooks (which he won without much strain). The man is one of the best players of his generation — and this second major championship certifies it. He’s won on the PGA Tour four straight years now, and in the same span of time he has six international victories. At 35, he’s obviously still in his prime, and might have another major in him before he’s done. (He was, after all, runner-up to Woods at the Masters two years ago, and he’s been in the top 10 in four of the last seven British Opens.)

In the end yesterday, one tough New York kind of guy beat another tough New York kind of guy. Here in the land of the Former Twin Towers, it’s all about the struggle, all about how you perform when you’re Up Against It. Goosen and Mickelson were up against one wicked golf course, and they easily gave as good as they got. In particular, they gave us a back nine that will be discussed and savored for years, a back nine in which the going got tough, so the tough got going.

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