Back from the Dead Fifteen years after being struck by lightning, Retief Goosen survived a near-fatal putting episode to win the U.S. Open

June 24, 2001

So this is what happens when Tiger Woods leaves things to the
jayvee.

Woods forgot to win one of golf's major championships for only
the second time since August 1999, and the result was that
America's 101st national championship turned into the Castor Oil
Open. In a tournament no one wanted to win, three players lost
the U.S. Open on the 72nd hole in a burlesque of yippy putting
and frayed nerves. The trophy eventually ended up in the hands of
Retief Goosen, following a two-stroke playoff victory over Mark
Brooks on Monday, but his triumph will forever be overshadowed by
the Van de Veldian weirdness in the fourth round.

On Sunday evening it took Brooks, Goosen and Stewart Cink a
total of nine putts to navigate the 18th green at Southern Hills
Country Club in Tulsa. Brooks blew a seven-footer that, it
turned out, would have won the tournament. Cink missed a 15-foot
par putt that, in hindsight, would have brought him the trophy.
He then shanked a two-footer that would have landed him in the
playoff. Goosen, playing in the final twosome with Cink, was the
last to putt, and, on cue, he three-jacked from 12 feet,
including an agonizing two-foot miss of his own. As Woods had
stormed to victory in five of the previous six majors, including
an unprecedented four straight going into this Open, there had
been much hand-wringing that his dominance might not be good for
the sport. Well, we can now say with some certainty that it sure
beats the alternatives.

"It's the saddest thing I've ever seen in sports," Paul Azinger
said on Sunday evening of the gagathon on 18.

"I was sick to my stomach," said Rocco Mediate, who finished
fourth.

Imagine how Brooks feels. He lost the Open twice. "Golf can be a
mean game," Brooks said on Monday.

Hey, don't feel so bad, Mark, you've got plenty of company on
the goat ranch. The USGA deserves some of the blame for the
sorry spectacle, as the blue coats butchered Southern Hills's
18th green, letting the grass grow longer after complaints about
its speed early in the week. Their tweaking turned every putt
into an adventure. While we're at it, let's place some of the
blame on Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and David Duval, the
young and the majorless who are so good at making paychecks but
not history. Woods was gracious enough to grant one of these
pretenders a free pass to the winner's circle, but all three
recoiled at the enormity of the opportunity. Heck, blame Woods.
He opened with a 74 and thereafter would never get closer than
within seven strokes of the lead, setting the stage for the
theater of the absurd that would follow.

The only good to come out of all this is that the 32-year-old
Goosen got a second chance. After all, he should have been dead
years ago. When he was 17, Goosen was playing with his cousin
Henri Potgieter on their home course in Pietersburg, South
Africa. On the 7th hole, Goosen pushed his drive into the trees
off the fairway, and, as he reached his ball, a bolt of
lightning split the sky and zapped both the tree and Goosen. His
eyeglasses were blown off his head and landed 30 yards away. The
shafts of his clubs were welded together, and the soles of his
golf shoes melted.

"I ran across the fairway to where Retief was lying, and it was a
sight I'll never forget as long as I live," Potgieter said last
week from his home in Pretoria, where he stayed up late into the
night monitoring the telecasts. "Retief's clothes had been burned
off of him. Even his underpants. His eyes had rolled up into his
head. He wasn't breathing because he'd swallowed his tongue. The
smell of burning hair was overpowering. I was sure that he was
dead. I began screaming, calling for help, and by God's will, in
the group behind us was a doctor. He pried Retief's tongue out of
his throat and began administering CPR." Goosen spent six days in
the hospital but was back on the golf course within three weeks.
The lightning strike left him with a partial hearing loss in his
left ear and an irregular heartbeat, which is controlled through
exercise, although Goosen plays as if he doesn't have a pulse.

A four-time winner on the European PGA tour, Goosen took control
of the Open over his first nine holes in Round 1, with brilliant
ball striking that led to a nifty 30. He completed his first
round--a four-under 66--on Friday, the suspension of play
necessitated by heavy rain and, yes, lightning. ("Retief is the
only one of us who doesn't get nervous about the lightning,
because he is lucky enough not to remember a thing about that
day," says Potgieter.) On Saturday, Goosen didn't have his best
fastball but he put on a short-game clinic, getting up and down
eight times during a wild 69 that gave him a share of the 54-hole
lead at minus-five, along with Cink, one stroke in front of
Brooks, Garcia and Mediate.

Woods was nine strokes back, and no one knew quite what to make
of the situation. "You are always going to be intimidated by
Tiger," Goosen said on Saturday night. "A lot of players have
gotten used to looking for his name on the leader board, and it
has probably affected their play. Tomorrow we'll have to find our
own way."

Or not. Sunday was a day of bloodletting up and down the leader
board. Having smoothed out the rough edges in his buggy-whip
swing, the 21-year-old Garcia came into the Open leading the PGA
Tour in total driving. On Saturday he hit 12 fairways and shot 68
to move to within one stroke of the lead. Then he collapsed on
Sunday. Gripping and regripping the club as if it were coated in
Vaseline, he fidgeted his way to a 77, which included a ghastly
33 putts. "I lost a big opportunity," he said, on the verge of
tears. "It was my moment. But I guess you have to lose many
majors before you can win one."

Mickelson can only hope so. He began the final round only two
shots off the lead but performed his usual Phil Flop on Sunday,
shooting a 75 to fall to seventh, six strokes back. Mickelson,
No. 2 in the World Ranking, pays a lot of lip service to
challenging Woods, but he doesn't seem to make time to work on
the holes in his game. In March he opened the first golf course
that he has designed, Whisper Rock in Scottsdale, Ariz., and
later this year he and his wife, Amy, will move into a $6 million
Xanadu they have been building in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. The
evening before the Open began, the Mickelsons even threw a
birthday party for their two-year-old daughter, Amanda, complete
with a life-sized Barney, a bubble machine and a herd of ponies.

Duval lost his cool, and probably the tournament, on the 9th hole
on Saturday, when he pitched a hissy fit after not having gotten
his way in a rules dispute. One under par at the time, he made
bogey on the hole. Duval then came further unhinged on Sunday,
shooting a 74 to fall to 16th place.

All these wannabes had exited stage right by the time the leaders
made the turn for Sunday's back nine, and, until the end, Brooks,
Cink and Goosen produced clutch and thrilling golf. One of the
game's most creative shotmakers, Brooks held the lead at five
under par after saving par by ripping a 234-yard shot pin high on
the 16th hole. Goosen caught him on the 15th, trickling in a
frighteningly fast downhill 15-footer, the kind of putt he made
look routine over the first 71 holes.

By that time Brooks had reached the 18th green, where he was
about to find out how small the cup gets when the U.S. Open is on
the line. Wary of being short from 40 feet, he charged his putt
seven feet past the target. Shaken, Brooks left the next one an
inch short to bogey and tumble to four under. It was only his
second three-putt of the tournament.

Shortly thereafter, back at 17, Cink pulled off the shot of the
day, sticking a sand wedge within a foot and a half of the hole
to catch Goosen at five under. Both hit stout drives onto the
18th fairway, and playing first, Cink launched his approach long
and left into the bermuda rough, which was the consistency of
steel wool. Goosen followed with a six-iron to 12 feet that, were
it not for the ensuing ill-fated two-footer, would surely have
passed into Open lore.

In the locker room Brooks was stuffing the detritus of his locker
into his bag while lazily monitoring the telecast. "I'm trying to
get out of here quick," he said. At the sight of Goosen's
six-iron shot, he rose without comment and ambled to the rest
room. He came back and resumed packing as Cink was playing
croquet on the green. "You hate to say it," Brooks would say
later, "but once a guy does that, all of a sudden it's like the
power of suggestion."

Brooks was still packing when Goosen stepped up to his downhill
two-footer. (Like those before him, he had misjudged the speed of
his first putt.) When the putt slid by on the low side, Brooks
jumped to his feet and bellowed, "He didn't just do that, did
he?" Yes he did, earning Goosen a place alongside those who have
blown majors by choking on short putts, an ignominious group that
includes Scott Hoch (1989 Masters), Hubert Green ('78 Masters)
and Doug Sanders ('70 British Open).

Goosen refused to let one putt break him. Ernie Els, the two-time
U.S. Open champion who has been a friend and rival of Goosen's
since both were in their early teens in South Africa, says, "The
strength of his game is his mind, his ability to hang in there.
He's not afraid of anything." On Sunday, Els left a pink Post-It
in Goosen's locker with a note scribbled in Afrikaans on it.
Rough translation: "Kick ass, boy."

Goosen did precisely that on Monday, making three sand saves in
the first eight holes and birdieing 9 and 10 while Brooks was
making bogey at both, a four-shot swing that all but decided the
championship. Over those first 10 holes Goosen took only 12
putts, but he still had a little something to prove as he reached
the diabolical 18th green. Nursing a three-stroke lead, Goosen
proceeded to leave a 20-foot par putt a knee-knocking six feet
short. ("I wasn't going to blast it by the hole again, believe
me," he said.) Suddenly all of Southern Hills was holding its
breath. Lightning couldn't strike twice, could it?

Goosen drilled the putt center cut, closing the books on a
rock-solid round of 70. "I was a bit shocked when it went in the
hole," he said, speaking for the rest of us, too.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK Easy does it Goosen looked as if he was cruising to victory before Sunday's meltdown, but he recovered to win Monday's playoff in a rout. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND You've got to be kidding The enduring image of the 101st Open will be the sight of Cink (left) and Goosen missing two-footers. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [See caption above]

"It's the saddest thing I've ever seen in sports," said Azinger.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)