- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. Just 10 months ago, he was Retief Who?-sun, the mystery winner of the U.S. Open. But now Retief Goosen is ranked fourth in the world, just behind fellow South African Ernie Els, and is one of the favorites this week at the Masters. How'd that happen?
"Some guys seem to bloom early in the game, others later," he says. "I seem to be one of those who hung back a little bit."
Maybe that's it. Maybe we've become so used to prodigies like Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Ty Tryon that a golfer whose career takes a more normal course gets overlooked until he does something spectacular like win an Open. After all, it's not as if Goosen was some schlump before he faced down Mark Brooks in an 18-hole playoff last year at Southern Hills. He had finished fifth in the European Order of Merit in '99 and seventh two years before that.
It's just that he hadn't appeared on "the Mike Douglas Show" when he was 2 or qualified for the PGA Tour when he was 17 or won the Australian Open when he was 18. In golf these days, that almost makes him a slow learner.
Things have speeded up pretty quickly for Goosen, though. Since his victory in Tulsa at the "advanced" age of 31, he has played as well as anyone in the game. He has five victories and two seconds and has shot par or better in every tournament he has entered. And last weekend, of course, he captured the Augusta Tune-up, a k a the BellSouth Classic, sending him into the Masters on a cloud.
"The way I'm playing now, I can see myself doing well this week," he says.
An understatement, to be sure. In fact, Goosen may be the guy Tiger Woods most has to fear. He rarely plays his way out of a tournament with a bad round (only one has been worse than 73 this year), and he can Go Low. In consecutive events this winter, he carded two 63s. (The first was on a nasty day in the Johnnie Walker Classic, prompting Nick Faldo to remark, "The way it's blown today, two or three under would have been a great round. But nine under is not fair, not golf, not sport.")
Granted, Goosen missed the cut at Augusta last year, but that was before he won the Open, before he arrived. His confidence at this point is practically bogey-proof. The victory at Tulsa, he says, "made me realize I can play under this sort of pressure. I'm much more relaxed in pressure situations than I've been in the past. I think that's been one of the reasons for my improvement."
The other is just his overall state of mind. Golf, he says, has always been "more a mental thing for me." And his work with sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout the same fellow currently tending to Ernie Els' bruised psyche has helped him in that area. Rather than feeling overburdened with expectations now that he's had his big breakthrough, Goosen finds himself enjoying his notoriety and "really motivated" to accomplish more.
Not that he's a household name yet. "I can still go to restaurants and have my meal and not get bothered," he says. But the media demands are far greater and the Golf Channel, with its coverage of the European Tour, is doing its best to make his mug recognizable.
"My first time back home last year after the Open was for the Million Dollar [Challenge in Sun City]," he says, "and on Monday and Tuesday I spent about four hours a day in the media tent doing interviews. It was a bit tiring, and I wasn't really prepared at all for the tournament."
People might not have underestimated Goosen had they known a bit more about his background. Had they known he was struck by lightning as an amateur. Had they known he survived playing a round at Hans Merensky Golf Club in South Africa's Northern Province.
"It's a great golf course," he says with a smile, "one of the best in South Africa, I think. It's right next to Kruger National Park, and they've got everything on it elephants, giraffes, you name it. You go out at night, and you see lions on the golf course. It's a scary place to play sometimes."
Goosen endured all that and now he's challenging Els for South African golf supremacy. Actually, theirs is a friendly rivalry. They played together in the World Cup last year and won for South Africa and live about a 5-iron from each other in Orlando. And now they even share the same sports shrink.
"We're going to be seeing a lot of each other," he says.
And golf fans, it's clear, are going to be seeing a lot of Retief Goosen.

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