- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2001

TULSA, Okla. Just call him Sir Valium. If a historic meltdown on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open can't rattle Retief Goosen, then maybe nothing can. Maybe we're looking at a future star, a multiple-major winner, rather than a guy who just had the week of his 32-year-old life.

That's always the $1 million question whenever a virtual unknown wins a big golf tournament. Is he the real thing, or was it just a case of the stars being properly aligned? Before the 101st Open at Southern Hills, there was nothing to suggest that Goosen, who hails from South Africa but lives in London, was capable of outplaying a world-class field for four days, never mind five. His victories, four of them, had been confined to the European Tour, and his performance in his one Presidents Cup was unremarkable. The high point of his career might have been a loss, 1-up, to Tiger Woods in the second round of the Match Play Championship last year.

But, obviously, there's a lot more to Goosen than anyone imagined. To beat former PGA champ Mark Brooks by two strokes (70 to 72) in an 18-hole playoff yesterday after that horrifying three-putt on the 18th green the day before shows Retief is as strong-willed as he is talented. And golf's biggest prizes, as Phil Mickelson and David Duval will tell you, tend to go to those who hold up best under the strain, not those who have the prettiest swings.

After Goosen began the playoff by plunking his first approach shot into a bunker, it would have been easy for him to say, "The nightmare continues. There's no way I'm going to win this thing" and then proceed to shoot a 75 or 76. But he handled this misfortune as stoically as he handled everything else in this Open. He appraised the situation, dug his heels into the sand and nearly holed out for a birdie.

He pulled a similar Houdini act on the second hole, getting up and down "from the [adjacent] seventh fairway," as Brooks put it, exaggerating only slightly. On the next hole Goosen was beached again, but he managed to save par that time, too.

Some will say he won the Open at the 9th and 10th, when he drained birdie putts while Brooks was busy bogeying. But I say he won it on the first three holes, when he made it clear that he wasn't suffering from an emotional hangover, when he showed he planned to go the distance.

"I don't know if I'd say it was demoralizing [to see Goosen scramble so successfully]," Brooks said. "We kind of started in match-play mode, and you expect guys to get it up-and-down and make putts. But yeah, it certainly could have been different."

Sometimes you don't want to believe what you're seeing. That might have been the case with Goosen. All tournament long he had been playing textbook golf and putting like a god, but then he got the heebie-jeebies on the 72nd hole and a lot of people just wrote him off. "He'll never be able to bounce back from that," they said. "He had his shot, and he blew it. He played over his head for four days, and now the bogeys are coming home to roost."

Obviously, they didn't know Retief. But perhaps now they do. The man may not display his emotions much if he had any less of a pulse, he'd be cryogenically frozen but that can be a good thing for your golf, keep you on more of an even-keel. After all, plenty of players are missing the excitement gene Brooks, for instance.

"I didn't feel bad about myself at all [after Sunday's debacle]," Goosen said. "I was proud of what I'd done. I'd dealt with the pressure all week; I'd been leading since the first round. I was actually more comfortable today than I was Sunday morning [because] I knew I had a 50 percent chance of winning. Jos Vanstiphout [the Belgian psychologist who works with him] told me [Sunday night], 'Tomorrow's a brand new day. What happened today is gone, and it isn't coming back.' That helped me a lot."

So did a phone message from Nick Faldo. Don't worry about it, kid, Nicky said. "The same thing has happened to me." Two-time Open champion Ernie Els, who survived a '94 playoff at Oakmont, also called to commiserate with his fellow South African. And then Goosen went out and played about as well as anybody ever does in these situations. Consider: The winning scores in the previous four Open playoffs were 74 (Els), 75 (Payne Stewart, '91), 74 (Hale Irwin, '90) and 71 (Curtis Strange, '88).

"I'm sure my life will change a little bit," Goosen said which has to be the leader in the clubhouse for Understatement of the Year. "But golf won't change. The next time I tee it up, I'll have to start all over again. Just because you've won a major doesn't mean you're a great player. You've got to keep working at it and trying to improve every day."

The biggest change for him and one that might take a while to get used to is that the next time he tees it up, he'll be identified as "U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen." If his play at Southern Hills is any indication, though, he'll carry the title well.

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