- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

PINEHURST, N.C. — Forget the Fab Five. In the Carolina Sandhills, there is just the Big Red One.

The 105th U.S. Open is now Retief Goosen’s to lose.

Thanks to one of the most stunning stretch runs in recent Open history, the bloodless South African posted a third-round 69 yesterday and now stands alone in red figures at 3 under at Pinehurst No.2.

Goosen, three clear of District native Olin Browne and minitour surprise Jason Gore (both at level par), is one round away from becoming the sixth man to win three U.S. Opens and the first to successfully defend as Open champion since Curtis Strange (1988-89).

“Obviously, it would be great to win this event back-to-back,” said the 36-year-old Goosen, who owns Open triumphs at Shinnecock Hills (2004) and Southern Hills (2001). “But you know, that’s a long way away still, and I’m going to have to wait 24 hours to see what happens. … I don’t really want to think about it yet. We know it’s going to be tough out there tomorrow to stay with it.”

The Golden Goose made it look easy yesterday. After beginning the day in a three-way tie with Browne and Gore at 2 under, Goosen seemed ready to join the field in stumbling down the back nine on Donald Ross’ 7,214-yard, par-70 masterpiece. After clawing his way to 3 under through 11 holes, Goosen began losing his drives right, leading to a bogey on No.12 and a double-bogey on No.13, where a nasty front-right pin position mocked all but the purest of approaches.

All of a sudden, the reputedly unflappable Goosen was back to level par, momentarily trailing Gore by one and seemingly headed for further disaster after driving right once more into the deep bunker right of the 14th fairway.

The closing five holes at Pinehurst No.2 represent perhaps the toughest stretch of golf on the planet. They consist of three relentless par-4s with yardages of 468 (No.14), 492 (No.16) and 442 (No.18), a 203-yard, par-3 with a drunken green the size of a frisbee (No.15) and the semi-breather 190-yard 17th that Payne Stewart famously birdied en route to the 1999 Open crown.

Yesterday, without hitting a single fairway, Goosen played that stretch in 3 under to claim a stranglehold on the tournament. The shot that started it all, a 6-iron from a dodgy, hanging lie in a bunker at the 14th left even 40-year golf scribes open-mouthed in awe. On a scale of 1 to 10, it rated an 11 — like Tiger Woods’ hole-out at the 16th at Augusta two months ago, Sandy Lyle’s bunker-shot approach at the 72nd hole of Masters in 1988 or Jack Nicklaus’ 1-iron to the 17th at Pebble Beach in the 1972 Open.

“It wasn’t an easy shot,” said Goosen in one of the century’s classic understatements. “I was stuck in a downhill, sidehill lie, and I actually had to hit a cut off that hook lie. … I had about 185 yards to the flag, and I was just trying to hit a sort of low, cutty 6-iron out there. If I hit it fat, I was in the bunker in front of the green. And if I hit it thin, I would hit the [lip of the bunker]. It came out perfect, nice little fade into the middle of the green.”

Goosen coasted home the birdie putt from some 20 feet, then carried the momentum to the 15th tee, striping another 6-iron into birdie range and converting. He nearly holed another birdie at the 16th and missed a 15-footer for birdie at the 17th, but then rebounded by stroking in a perfectly weighted 25-footer for birdie from just off the edge of the green at the 18th. His mystifying totals for the back nine: zero of seven fairways hit, 10 putts, 34 strokes.

“He’s got to be one of the most underrated players of all time,” said Browne (72), who played with Goosen. “I think there’s a lot of respect for Retief. That guy can play.”

And given Goosen’s history in the Open, where he trounced Mark Brooks in an 18-hole playoff (2001) and then stared down Phil Mickelson at Shinnecock (last year), nobody would pick him to blow a somewhat comfortable lead. Not considering the four players within four strokes of him have never really threatened to win a major, much less consummated the deal.

The only two players of whom finale charges are expected are 2001 PGA champion David Toms (2 over) and nine-time major winner Woods (3 over).

Woods would be locked in a duel atop the board with Goosen if he hadn’t left his putting stroke back home. The world No.1 has played beautifully from tee to green this week, leading the field in greens in regulation (42 of 54). But he has endured easily his worst major to date with the blade and currently stands last among the 83 players who made the cut in putting (33.33 a round).

Yesterday, Woods hit 16 greens but needed 36 putts, a total that would enrage a 10-handicapper.

“I probably had two looks at birdies that I thought were realistic chances. Other than that, I was just lagging,” said Woods after a third-round 72. “I’m far from out of it. If you shoot a good round tomorrow, who knows what can happen? We’ve seen it at Carnoustie [in the 1999 British Open] where Paul Lawrie came from 10 back to win. … I’m one good round away from winning this championship, that’s the way you’ve got to approach it.”

Sports psychologists might like that approach, but golf historians like Goosen.


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