- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

PINEHURST, N.C. — Golf’s Golden Goose is soaring again at a U.S. Open.

On a day when the bulk of the field was falling back at Pinehurst No. 2, Retief Goosen stood his ground. The defending champion posted a second-round 70 on the 7,214-yard, par-70 layout to claim a share of the lead at the 105th U.S. Open with District native Olin Browne and Nationwide Tour regular Jason Gore at 2 under.

“I don’t know what it is about the U.S. Open other than I seem to like tougher golf courses,” said Goosen, a mirthless 36-year-old South African who boasts Open victories in 2001 (Southern Hills) and last year (Shinnecock Hills). “Mentally, I just seem tougher on these types of golf courses. The harder it gets, the better I seem to perform.”

Goosen is a bit of an anomaly in that half his total PGA Tour triumphs have come in the USGA’s annual angst-fest. His career is starting to take on the same trajectory as that of Hale Irwin, a three-time Open champion (1974, 1979 and 1990) whose only real near-miss at one of the other three majors was a runner-up finish in the 1983 British Open.

Three players have won four Opens — Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus — putting Goosen just two rounds from adding his name to those of some serious immortals. And if Goosen becomes the first three-time winner since Irwin did it 15 years ago at Medinah, he definitely won’t match him in the emotional category.

Perhaps not since Hogan has an elite player exhibited as little emotion as Goosen, who goes about his business with nary a fist pump or frown. Authoring perhaps the best line ever delivered on the subject, Adam Scott (1 over) once described Goosen as “absolutely horizontal out there.”

Close friend and two-time champion Ernie Els swears Goosen has a colorful side. But he’s clearly the least charismatic member of the game’s Big Five.

Whether Goosen is simply guarded or just simple, his personality is obviously a perfect fit for the Open’s merciless demand of fairways-and-greens monotony. If you want excitement, watch Tiger Woods (1 over), Sergio Garcia (even) or Phil Mickelson (6 over). If you want to witness a living template for Open success, watch Goosen.

On Thursday, he hit 16 greens, a seeming impossibility given the dome-shaped greens of Donald Ross’ masterpiece course, but struggled somewhat with his putter. Yesterday Goosen struggled mightily with his ball-striking, hitting just five fairways and 10 greens. But the world witnessed the return of the man who boggled the mind with the blade at Southern Hills and Shinnecock.

“We all know this event is all about saving pars and making the right putts,” Goosen said after holing eight putts in the 10- to 15-foot range, most to save pars. “I’m still not all that comfortable on the greens. … But it’s not easy when you’re out there, I must say. It’s hard work, and it works on your nerves.”

Frayed nerves were certainly in evidence elsewhere as fellow Big Five members Mickelson (77) and Els (76) spiraled out of contention and barely survived the cut line, which fell at 8 over and spared 83 players.

Browne, who held a share of the overnight lead after an opening 67, was one of the few first-round protagonists to find second-round success. The 46-year-old PGA Tour rank-and-filer displayed incredible resilience after a late-round double-bogey, rebounding to finish with three solid pars and a survivable 71.

“I think everybody is going to confront a catastrophe out here somewhere, and it just happened to be my turn there,” said Browne, who holed a damage-controlling 20-footer for double on the 220-yard 6th hole (his 15th on the day) after beginning the hole in bunker-to-bunker ignominy. “The truth of the matter is the course giveth and the course taketh away, and it took back there.”

Browne, who has just two PGA Tour victories (1998 Hartford Open, 1999 Colonial) in his 13-year career, actually was ecstatic with his score given his spotty ball-striking. A steady but short hitter, Browne needed some sublime work with the short stick (26 putts) to remain in the mix on a day when he hit just 10 greens.

“The way I struck the ball today, it’s something of a miracle that I’m still on the board,” said Browne, who qualified in fantastic fashion with a closing 59 at Woodmont in Rockville last week. “I don’t have any delusions at this point about what’s happening. I know that there’s plenty of golf left, and this course is going to be nasty and brutal on the weekend. I just don’t have time to be worried about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other at the moment.

“I think Jack Nicklaus said it really well one time: ‘The Open chooses you. You don’t necessarily choose it.’ ”

Unfortunately for Browne, the Open has never chosen a player older than 45, much less a virtually undecorated veteran. Nor has it ever chosen a player as obscure as Gore, the 31-year-old who lost his PGA Tour card two years ago and his full-time Nationwide status last season.

“I know,” said Gore, who has three Nationwide Tour victories, after carding a superb second-round 67. “I’m going to go home and turn on the TV and everybody is going to rip me. And that’s fine. … How bad can it be? I get to play Pinehurst for two more days.”

The Open, however, has developed quite a taste for Goosen. And nobody would be surprised if it whispers his name again this weekend.

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