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Wild Goose Chase On a bloody Sunday, steady Retief Goosen stared down Ernie Els and outlasted Phil Mickelson to win his second U.S. Open

June 28, 2004
June 28, 2004

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June 28, 2004

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Wild Goose Chase On a bloody Sunday, steady Retief Goosen stared down Ernie Els and outlasted Phil Mickelson to win his second U.S. Open

Retief Goosen did not win the 104th U.S. Open with a cold-blooded
birdie on the 16th hole at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Sunday.
He didn't prevail because of a fearless 25-foot bogey putt on the
14th hole, or an all-world up and down out of the cabbage on the
13th, or a dazzling eight-iron to four feet on the 11th. Goosen
didn't take his second Open in four years because the New Phil
Mickelson reverted to his old ways on the 17th hole,
three-putting from within six feet for a double bogey. No, this
Open was all but decided in the moments fraught with tension just
before and during Goosen's opening hole of the final round.

This is an article from the June 28, 2004 issue Original Layout

That's when he overcame more than 20 years of inferiority to
boyhood rival Ernie Els and turned the tables on Els, his playing
partner on Sunday, and Jos Vanstiphout, a motivational guru who
has ministered to both players.

A few minutes before three o'clock on Sunday the small practice
putting green tucked behind Shinnecock's famous clubhouse was the
sight of a three-man drama starring Goosen, Els and self-styled
"mental coach" Vanstiphout. Goosen, 35, is eight months older
than Els, a figure who has towered over him since their junior
golf days in South Africa. "Ernie has always been the guy,"
Goosen would say later, noting that he had never beaten Els in
their match-play dustups as teenagers.

As they stroked putts, Goosen, lost in his routine, pointedly
ignored Els. "He just switches off," is how Goosen's wife, Tracy,
describes his lone-wolf intensity. Nor did Goosen acknowledge
Vanstiphout, the too-tan gent with blow-dried '80s hair and
oversized sunglasses who hovered at Els's elbow. A failed Belgian
pop singer, Vanstiphout became a star in the golf world for what
he calls the "reprogramming of Retief's subconscious," which
began in 2000, when Goosen was still a maddening underachiever on
the European tour. When Goosen missed a two-footer on the 72nd
hole that would have won the 2001 U.S. Open, Vanstiphout talked
him off the ledge and got him ready for the Monday playoff, in
which he beat Mark Brooks by two strokes. Two years ago Goosen
and Vanstiphout parted ways. "He's helped me, and there's no need
for us to carry on," Goosen says. "When you're on the golf
course, you are all alone." (Goosen also hasn't had a swing
instructor in six years, unheard of for a top professional.)

Now Vanstiphout advises Els, whose awesome natural ability and
Big Easy demeanor mask a puzzling fragility. He sought
Vanstiphout's help after finishing second at three straight
majors in 2000. Though he has won two U.S. Opens and a British
Open, Els is threatening to turn into this generation's Greg
Norman, a player whose triumphs are overshadowed by all the big
tournaments that got away. He was runner-up yet again at this
year's Masters, and the final round of the Open--which he began
tied for second place with Mickelson, two shots behind
Goosen--loomed as one of most important of his career. On the
practice putting green in the moments before teeing off, he
continually looked over at Goosen, seeking a friendly
acknowledgement that never came.

"People don't realize that Ernie is a guy who wants to go to the
1st tee believing that he is the best player in the group, but he
also wants to know that he can joke around and be social with his
partners," says Els's wife, Leizl. "He really needs to have both
or he's not comfortable." When the time came, Goosen marched to
the 1st tee, steeled for the tournament within the tournament
versus his countryman. Els hesitated, lingering at the edge of
the practice green so Vanstiphout could whisper final
encouragement and offer a couple of gentle pats on the back.

Alone at last, Els made a mess of the 1st hole, driving into the
rough, fluffing a chip and three-putting for double bogey. Goosen
banged in a 40-footer for birdie, a body blow from which Els
never recovered. In the next nine holes Els would make three
bogeys and two doubles on the way to a shocking 80. A relentless
plodder and a short game wizard, Goosen got up and down four
times on the front nine, the kind of virtuoso scrambling that was
a necessity on one of the most brutal days in recent major
championship history. Having vanquished Els, Goosen had to fight
off only one other challenger--Mickelson.

Mickelson had gone to Shinnecock a couple of weeks before the
Open to perfect a game plan with his swing coach, Rick Smith, and
short game specialist, Dave Pelz. Mickelson, aided by a similar
scouting mission to Augusta, had won an epic Masters with the
most controlled, calculating golf of his career. The big question
following his breakthrough first major was whether his play at
Augusta was an aberration.

Much of Mickelson's pretournament preparation had been devoted to
the 16th, a short (537 yards), tricky par-5 that rewards
precision, not pyrotechnics. On his way to a fourth-place finish
at the 1995 Open at Shinnecock, the callow, gung ho Mickelson had
played the hole double bogey, bogey, bogey, double bogey. In the
first round of this Open, Mickelson pulled his drive into the
right rough, 247 yards from the hole. Trying to reach the green
in two with a violent rip of his four-wood, Mickelson missed in
the one place he couldn't afford to--long and right. Now he faced
a third shot over a gaping bunker to a pin tucked on a downslope
just a few paces from the green's edge. After hurrying to the
green, an edgy Smith sized up the play. "This is the shot of the
tournament," he said. "This is the most dangerous shot he may
face all week."

In years past Mickelson would have attempted to stuff the ball
next to the flag with his trademark high-risk flop shot, inviting
bogey or worse. (A flop from a similar spot during the final
round in '95 came up inches short of the green, leading to a
killing double.) Mickelson went through a series of practice
swings as Smith described each: "That was the high flop.... That
was a low controlled spinner that he would play to the middle of
the green.... That was the flop." You could imagine an angel on
one of Mickelson's shoulders and the devil on the other.

Finally Mickelson settled over his ball. He took a short, tight
backswing, and the ball shot out low and hard, landing well past
the flag and trickling up the spine of the green, leaving a
downhill 25-footer. He had conceded birdie but was rewarded with
a tap-in par. "He did the right thing," Smith said with a weary
smile. "That was his first big test, and now he's off and
running."

Indeed, Mickelson followed his opening 68 with a bogeyless 66 to
surge into the lead. He was still atop the leader board late in
the third round, but Goosen reeled him in, birdieing the 15th and
16th holes while a tired-looking Mickelson staggered home
bogey-bogey.

Goosen's rock-solid 69 on Saturday was largely lost in the howls
of protest engulfing Shinnecock Hills. The monied class of Long
Island has changed radically--J. Gatsby has given way to P.
Diddy--but Shinnecock remains timeless. The site of the second
U.S. Open, in 1896, the course still checks in at under 7,000
yards to a par of 70. What makes it one of the most exacting
tests in championship golf are its tiny sloped greens, 164
bunkers, ball-gobbling fescue and a steady breeze off the
Atlantic. But in setting up the course for this year's Open, the
USGA forgot one thing: Just add water. Overcast, windless
conditions and a Thursday-evening shower made Shinnecock playable
for the first two rounds, but on a sunny, windy Saturday the USGA
began to lose the greens. By the time the last group teed off at
2:50 p.m., the crusty, baked putting surfaces "looked like
someone took a Bunsen burner to them," according to Smith. The
shrillest criticism was reserved for the 7th hole, a 189-yard
par-3 with a green that slopes severely from front to back. On
Saturday only 18 of the 66 competitors were able to hold the
green with their tee shots, and so many players had chips roll
back to their feet, it looked like a Skeeball competition. The
average score was 3.49, and the carnage included Mickelson's
double bogey, which began with an eight-iron that rolled off the
back of the green. After a delicate chip his 10-foot par putt
trickled by the hole, wavered, wiggled, just about stopped,
started up again, then meandered 20 feet past. He missed the
comebacker. Asked later if the hole was fair, Mickelson shot
back, "What do you think?"

Els answered the question more directly: "This isn't golf. It's
crazy."

Whining about the setup is the soundtrack to most U.S. Opens, but
when Sunday arrived with a bright blue sky and the strongest
winds of the tournament, Shinnecock's burned-out greens crossed
the line from extremely difficult to unfair. The bloodbath began
with the early starters. Billy Mayfair, a five-time winner on the
PGA Tour, shot a 47 on the front nine and finished at 89. Hall of
Famer Tom Kite parred the last six holes--to shoot 84. Asked to
describe the fried greens, Goosen offered one word: "Dead." In
the early afternoon the USGA finally decided to intermittently
syringe the putting surfaces. This meant that different players
faced different speeds. At day's end the average score would be
78.73 (the second highest round in Open history, .01 of a stroke
behind the final round at Pebble Beach in 1972), and 28 players
would shoot 80 or higher.

Amid this tempest Goosen was unflappable. When he was 17, he was
struck by lightning, and he still plays as if he doesn't have a
pulse. He led by three with seven holes to play, but Mickelson
put together a back-nine surge that is becoming his trademark. A
Goosen bogey at 14 was sandwiched by Mickelson birdies at 13 and
15, and suddenly they were tied. At the 16th Mickelson played a
gorgeous third shot, feeding his pitch off a slope toward the
hole. Around New York he has been the people's choice since he
finished second to Tiger Woods in The People's Open in 2002 at
Bethpage State Park, and Long Island fairly shook as Mickelson's
ball inched to within eight feet of the cup. Mickelson rolled in
the birdie putt to take his first lead of the day, at four under
par.

Goosen watched Mickelson's birdie from the fairway, then coolly
stuffed a wedge 12 feet below the hole, brushing in the putt as
if it were a practice-round gimme. Tied again. The tournament
ended at 17, a 179-yard par-3. Mickelson lost a six-iron into the
front bunker but had a good lie on the uphill. It was the kind of
shot playing partner Fred Funk estimated Mickelson would get up
and down nine times out of 10 in normal conditions. But his
explosion from the sand took a hard hop on the baked green and
skittered past the hole, leaving a frightening downhill
five-footer. He missed that and the comebacker, too, bringing to
mind the 1999 U.S. Open, at which Mickelson three-putted on the
71st hole to open the door for Payne Stewart.

Goosen pulled his tee shot at 17 into the same bunker but saved
par with an explosion to three feet and a never-in-doubt putt,
preserving his two-shot lead. Happiness is three putts to win the
U.S. Open, but unlike in 2001, Goosen took only two at 18 and
became the 21st player to win multiple Opens. "I'm immensely
proud to be on this trophy," said Goosen, "and to be on it twice
is unbelievable." His Father's Day victory, which boosted him two
places to No. 7 in the World Ranking, was all the sweeter because
in October, Tracy is expecting twins who'll join one-year old Leo
in filling family homes in Orlando and London.

Mickelson, meanwhile, will have to continue the hunt for his
second major championship. "I had a great experience at Augusta,"
he said, "but just as thrilling as that was, it's just as
disappointing to come so close at a tournament I've dreamed about
since I was a kid."

At least Mickelson will head to next month's British Open knowing
his game is in shape. Els was so out of sorts on Sunday that when
he was heckled by some drunken yahoos on the 14th fairway, he
stopped walking and gestured for them to leave the bleachers and
meet him in the fairway to settle the matter. "They should come
down," wife Leizl muttered. "There is a lot of frustration in
that fairway."

No doubt that will be covered in Ernie's future sessions with
Vanstiphout, who paced while watching Sunday's action on TV in a
USGA hospitality tent. Once Els was out of contention,
Vanstiphout switched allegiances, barking at the TV, "C'mon,
Retief, c'mon, man!"

In the end a philosophical Vanstiphout said, "The difference
between success and failure out here is so small and so big at
the same time." No one knows this better than Mickelson and Els,
and that's why Goosen was alone at the top.

SI.com
More golf coverage, including Gary Van Sickle's Underground
Golfer and Frank Beard's Mailbag, at si.com/golf.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS CAUTION IN THE WINDS Ocean breezes and rock-hard greens led to torturous rounds for many players on Sunday, but Goosen teed off with an iron at the 443-yard 9th and made a rare two-putt par.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (LEFT) TROPHY AND TROUBLE Humble winner Goosen saw playing partner Els thrash his way through the fescue to a final-round 80.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER HEARTBREAK HILL Mickelson made a back-nine charge, but a narrow miss at 14 kept him from birdieing four straight holes.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS HELL HOLE After the first Sunday pairings were eviscerated by the crusty 7th green, the USGA brought out the hoses.

Mickelson went through a series of practice swings. You could
imagine an angel on one of his shoulders and the devil on the
other.

With Sunday's bright blue sky and the strong winds, Shinnecock's
burned-out greens crossed the line from extremely difficult to
unfair.