Retief Goosen enjoys quiet life despite U.S. Open fame
The scene is an Italian restaurant in Munich, Germany. It’s late August 1999, two years before Retief Goosen would take the golf world by storm by winning the U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.
In a corner alcove, Zimbabwe’s Mark McNulty and Belgian sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout are engaged in a heated discussion about handling pressure down the stretch in a major championship. Goosen is quiet as McNulty and Vanstiphout argue. He calmly sips his coffee as if his two friends are discussing politics, the weather or the price of gasoline.
McNulty’s and Vanstiphout’s voices grow louder as they try to get their points across. The argument ends when McNulty gets up from the table and leaves the restaurant, slamming the door behind him. Vanstiphout follows and has to put his hands out to stop the door from hitting him in the face.
Goosen remains at the table, unperturbed by the argument and the sudden departure of his dining companions. He takes a last sip from his coffee cup, replaces the cup on its saucer and ambles out of the restaurant.
“Man, I was cross,” McNulty said the next day. “I was just so wound up that I had to get out of there.”
And what about Goosen?
“I don’t think he even knew we were arguing,” said McNulty. “He never gets involved in stuff like that. That’s Goose. The restaurant could have been burning down and Goose would have handled it as a minor irritation rather than a major incident. It takes a lot to light a fire under the Goose.”
Sitting in the midst of a blazing argument might not compare to the pressure of a major golf championship, but McNulty and Vanstiphout needed only look at their friend to see the sort of personality it takes to handle heat down the stretch. Anyone who has watched Goosen over the years understands why the South African didn’t get involved in the heated dispute.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els grew up playing against Goosen, and probably knows him better than any other player.
“Retief doesn’t like confrontation,” Els said. “He’d rather stand over a 3-foot putt to win a tournament than answer a difficult question from the press.”
Louis Martin, chief executive of the South African Tour, has been watching Goosen since Goosen burst on the amateur scene in the late 1980s. He agrees.
“He’s always been very, very quiet,” Martin said. “He doesn’t like fanfare or having to make public speeches. I mean he did well when he gave the talk at this year’s European Tour dinner (where he was recipient of the player of the year award), but I can assure you he was dreading that for at least two days beforehand.
“He’s just one of those genuine, quiet characters, and that doesn’t get the press fired up or the public fired up. He’s not going to change, but he is getting better at handling himself in public.”
Goosen grew up in a quiet part of South Africa, and Martin feels that has contributed to his make-up.
“It probably has a lot to do with the fact that Pietersburg, where he grew up in South Africa, is a fairly isolated community away from the hubbub of South African life,” Martin said.
In fact, it’s difficult to get Goosen to say “boo” about anything. A few years back, Goosen tried his hand at skiing and took a hard fall. When he tried to play a few rounds in a tournament soon after, his arm began to bother him with each swing. He finally, reluctantly, agreed to see a doctor, who informed Goosen his left arm was broken.
“Typical Retief,” said his agent, IMG’s Guy Kinnings. “He didn’t even grumble about it.”
Goosen openly says he does not care for the hoopla that goes with winning a major championship. For example, the thought of trading places with No. 1-ranked Tiger Woods is almost unbearable.
“I can’t image what it’s like to be Tiger Woods,” said Goosen, ranked No. 4 in the Official World Ranking and No. 5 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index through June 3. “I don’t want to. I’m sure he has a great life, but I don’t think I would like to live the way he’s living, with bodyguards everywhere.”
Goosen is recognized in his homeland, but hardly ever in England, where he spends half his time. It helps that he’s a jeans-and-T-shirt sort of guy, which means he can go out without having to worry about being pestered for autographs.
“I don’t have any of those sorts of problems, so it’s great to have some sort of private life still,” he said.
Goosen’s desire to avoid the limelight also is helped by the current dynamics of world golf.
“He likes things quiet, and he gets that in Europe and America right now,” Els said. “Monty (Colin Montgomerie), (Darren) Clarke and (Lee) Westwood get all the attention in Europe, which means Goose can just go about his business. Then, when he comes to the States, everyone’s more interested in Tiger and Phil (Mickelson) and (David) Duval, so again Goose can just do his own thing. That’s just perfect for him.”
The same goes for his status in South Africa. Goosen always has been second fiddle to Els, and he doesn’t mind one bit.
“It suits him in South Africa because he has always been No. 2 to Ernie,” Martin said. “Because Ernie won the World Junior championship, he has naturally attracted all the attention from an early age. That’s fine with Retief.”
The comparison between Els and Goosen is an obvious one. Els was the first South African to make his mark on world golf since Gary Player. That puts him miles ahead of Goosen in the popularity sweepstakes.
“Ernie’s the superstar,” Martin said. “Retief’s a major winner and a hero. Because he doesn’t give much to the public in terms of outward emotions, it’s difficult for the public to get fired up about Retief.
“He’s not 6-foot-3 and blond like Ernie. Ernie is striking when he walks in the door because he walks tall with his head up and you can’t miss him. Retief keeps his head down and can go unnoticed. They are just totally different personalities.”
As executive director of the South African Tour, Martin has many dealings with Goosen. Yet, true to form, Martin never has heard a word of direct criticism from the star.
“I’ve never heard Retief complain in my life,” Martin said. “I have to force the issue with him. I’ll ask him if everything’s all right and he always says yes. Then I’ll hear about something and I’ll ask him a few days later, and he will tell me then. But I have to force it out of him.”
To back up his point, Martin points to a controversy surrounding the Million Dollar Challenge at Sun City two years ago.
“Retief had won a couple of tournaments and he was just out of the top 20 in the world rankings,” Martin said. “He didn’t get invited when everyone said he should have been.
“But his response was typical Retief. His exact words when asked if he felt he should have been invited were ‘No. They have their criteria. I’ll just have to make sure they invite me next year by qualifying.’ Everybody in South Africa felt he was hard done by – everyone except Retief.”
Goosen’s transformation from tournament winner to major champion is well documented. There are plenty of stories on how Vanstiphout, who began working with Goosen four years ago, finally prodded Goosen to start believing in himself. Even after all the mental game work the two had done together, Vanstiphout was gravely concerned how Goosen would handle his shocking 72nd hole three-putt at Southern Hills last June, one that temporarily cost Goosen the U.S. Open title he all but had his hands around.
“We got back to the hotel, and I asked him how he was, and it was, ‘I’m fine, Jos. I’m fine. Really, I’m fine,’” says Vanstiphout, retelling the story, still marveling at Goosen’s calmness. “Before I left the room, I asked him, ‘What have you learned today?’ Goose looked at me and said, ‘I learned that I can beat them all.’”
The next day, Goosen defeated Mark Brooks in an 18-hole playoff, shooting 70 to Brooks’ 72.
Yet despite his outwardly placid nature, Goosen used to beat himself up on the course.
“He was always a hell of a player,” Martin said. “He really didn’t know how good he was. Everyone said there would be no stopping him, because he always had the talent. What people don’t realize, though, is that he was his own worst enemy. He would get so uptight. If he hit a bad shot, he wouldn’t be able to let it go for about three or four holes, by which time the damage was done. It’s only since he started to handle adversity, to bounce back from a bogey, that he’s become a winner.
“He always had the game to win a major. It was just a matter of harnessing his temperament.”
Since his U.S. Open victory, Goosen has won three more titles and he also finished second to Woods at the Masters. Through the end of May, he led the European Tour’s Order of Merit with more than $1 million in only eight tournaments.
While many in golf were surprised by his victory in Tulsa last year, it will be no surprise if Goosen puts up a stout defense of his title at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course.
“He’ll be a factor,” Els said. “He has grown so much in confidence since the U.S. Open. Just look at what he’s done since last June. He’ll be a factor this year and in every major championship for a lot of years to come.”
More importantly, Goosen agrees.
“I see myself with more of a chance of winning it now than I did last year,” he said.
At Bethpage, the quiet South African has a chance to accomplish something compatriots Player and Els have not been able to do: successfully defend a major.
If he does, just don’t expect cartwheels on the 72nd green. m