2005: Goosen’s ghastly Sunday

Pinehurst, N.C.

Funny what can transpire over the span of a couple hours on Sunday at the U.S. Open. One minute, the world is ready to coronate a Goose, trying to slot him into his proper place in history as he swoops in on his third U.S. Open title in five years.

Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin . . . Retief Goosen.

Hey, why not celebrate a little early? The South African Ice Mon had a three-shot lead over some minor major players, and even owned a seemingly insurmountable six-shot lead over Tiger Woods. Can you say “lock” in Afrikaans?

The Goose – Mr. Clutch Putter Extraordinaire, Mr. Open Sunday – with a three-shot edge at the brutish Pinehurst No. 2? This one was over. Might as well just flip the housecat the keys to the canary cage.

“I don’t think anybody in the world today is playing better than Retief Goosen,” said countryman Ernie Els.

“His composure is up there with the best of them, and he won’t let it go south,” piped in Stewart Cink.

Chimed Lee Janzen, “For so long it’s been the Big Four and Retief . . . how about Retief and the Little Four?”

Honestly, why should anyone have harbored thoughts to the contrary? The Goose was looking golden. A day earlier, Goosen had rebounded from a tough stretch early on the back nine by soaring down the homestretch, making birdies at three of his last five holes as others fell back.

The lesson: Don’t count your goslings before they hatch. Especially at the U.S. Open.

Even at Pinehurst, where time stands still, rocking chairs gently teeter back and forth on the porch and church chimes resonate on the hour, there is absolutely nothing subtle about Sunday at the Open. The tranquility is a facade. Sunday at the Open is more like Jack Nicholson suddenly smashing through the door in “The Shining.”

Say what you want about Goosen’s epic collapse. For sure, every 24-handicapper in America stood around the water cooler on Monday morning speaking in disbelief about the Goose’s gasping final-round 81. Say Joe, did you see the Goose lay his golden egg?

In truth, it doesn’t take much to shoot 80 on Sunday at the Open. Ask Jason Gore (84), the everyman whose dreamy week came to an alarming conclusion. Or Olin Browne (80), the gritty veteran who played conductor at the helm of the Pinehurst bogey train. Or Ernie Els, who showed up at Shinnecock a year ago with designs on victory, and later signed for an 80. Or Gil Morgan (81 at Pebble Beach in 1992) and a host of others.

“This game teaches you to embrace failure,” Browne said. “You spend an awful lot of time messing up. For three days I kept control of myself. And I played better today than I did yesterday and I ended up shooting an 80.”

When Browne was asked if he could believe a world-class player such as Goosen ever could limp home in 81, he shot back, “Well, that ought to bring it into crystal clarity how difficult the conditions were. A player of that stature, who was in apparent control of every facet of his game, got his ass handed to him, much like the rest of us. That’s just the nature of this game.”

And, of course, the nature of the Open, where birdies are far and few between and disaster awaits around every dogleg and inverted bowl green.

It’s a different style of survival golf.

Browne insists golf can rob one of a sense of humor, but in Goosen’s darkest hour on Sunday, he turned comical. Conversing with Gore at one point, the Goose laughed openly, something NBC analyst Roger Maltbie, assigned to the final group, said he’d never seen Goosen do before.

Goosen asked Gore, a California kid, if he was familiar with the game of cricket, where runs are called “overs.”

Said Gore, “We had the way overs.”

In the end, the last two players on Pinehurst No. 2, who would combine to shoot an office-league-like 25 over par in the afternoon, had to play for something. So they went down the last hole competing for $5. That shiny U.S. Open trophy sitting behind the green, the one that had been in Goosen’s possession for the last year, the one that was supposed to be his once again, already was spoken for.

To his credit, Goosen took his medicine like a man. He termed his play “rubbish” and congratulated “Cambo,” an old acquaintance from European Tour days. He maintained that he had enjoyed Father’s Day with his wife and two children. Shooting 81 at the Open wasn’t anything that came with a Surgeon General’s warning attached to it.

“This is nothing serious,” he said. “Nobody has died.”

In all honesty, this Open deserved better on Sunday. Not necessarily a better winner – Campbell is a deserving champion – but certainly a higher quality finish, one in which more players who started the day near the top were able to stay in the hunt at least until the final holes. But the Everyman (Gore) crashed early, and the Old Wise Man (the 46-year-old Browne) couldn’t keep up. Woods was his fiery self, but made some uncharacteristic mistakes and late bogeys and was left to rue One That Got Away. (We all know how he feels about finishing second.)

Which leads us to the Goose. A third U.S. Open crown would have delivered immeasurably more respect than he currently receives. Right now, winless in 2005, he’s the guy holding the door open for the Big Four. With a third Open, he’d have indelibly etched his name deeper into the history books. It was right there. But the Goose will have to fly another day, at another Open.

Shockingly, in the span of a single crazy Open afternoon, he departed the dusty parking lot at Pinehurst with no U.S. trophy in tow, and only Jason Gore’s $5 bill to show for a day Goosen cannot wait to forget.

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