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Retief Goosen looking to light up Baltusrol in the PGA

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,

Everyone wants to bring it back to the lightning. To trace it all to that one stray bolt from the heavens that literally vaporized the shoes off a teenage Retief Goosen's feet, turned a golfer's instruments into a mangled mash of medal.

When Retief Goosen wobbles in a tournament, takes a three-shot lead over a bunch of golf nobodies into the final round of the 2005 U.S. Open and then goes out there and shoots an 11-over 81 that sinks him faster than all of James Cameron's special effects in Titanic, everyone's shocked. Because - well, it's Retief. And he survived lightning, you know.

When Retief Goosen strategically dominates a tournament, turns back a charging Phil Mickelson at the 2004 U.S. Open with the sureness of his shot making, everyone expects it. Because - well, it's Retief. And he survived lightning, you know.

That lightning did not give Retief Goosen superpowers, a la Peter Parker's spider. It just threatened his life and left him with him some serious burns. Of course, you would not know this from listening to everyone talk about the fifth-ranked golfer in the world.

Jim Nantz was at it again this weekend during the telecast of The International. As Goosen wrapped up the victory in the Stableford-scoring-system event, Nantz observed matter of factly, "He's unflappable."

This likely would have made Goosen smile. (Good luck trying to pick out that smile though.) For Goosen seems to understand better than anybody just how mortal he is. How he's subject to the whims of golf and its collapses and comebacks just like anyone else. No one needed to remind him that the International was his first win on any tour this season.

Jim Nantz may have been puzzled by that. Retief Goosen knew too well.

He's talked openly about his frustrations with his game heading into this week's PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey. "I'm not playing the way I know I can play,'' Goosen told reporters recently.

Goosen seems intent on making sure everyone knows he bleeds too. Let others discount his U.S. Open and British Open final round stumbles. He'll bring them up. He'll poke fun at the fact Sports Illustrated picked him too win the PGA Championship in its recent preview issue. It's almost like he wants everyone to know the whole unflappable lightning link is not his story.

Heck, Goosen will even argue with Mom on this one.

Though Goosen admits to sometimes staring at those mangled clubs today (he's kept them for 20 years now), he dismisses the common perception that the lightning strike changed him, made him the serious, focused fellow who cannot be fazed by mere tournament pressure. Even if it's an outlook the woman who raised him believes.

"That's what (Mom) thinks,'' Goosen said. "I don't know. How old was I? Sixteen, just about 17. So I think I wouldn't say it changed me. I was back on the golf course about three weeks later playing. As soon as I got rid of all the burn marks and I could get my shoes back on, I was out there playing again."

It's the same type of attitude displayed in the wake of his U.S. Open and British Open meltdowns. Goosen played the International when many of the other top players elected to rest the week before the PGA Championship because he felt his game needed the competitive environment. Then, he went out and gutted out a final day of 36 holes in Denver's mile-high attitude over the 7,619 yards at Castle Pines Golf Club to grab that long-awaited first win of 2005.

Goosen guzzled bottled water like Nick Nolte downs bourbon. Thirty six bottles of water in one day by Goosen's unofficial, slightly dazed final count.

Suddenly, Goosen felt a little better about his chances at Baltusrol.

"I wouldn't say I lost confidence," Goosen said in his post-win press conference at the International. "But I was disappointed in the way I played. At some stage, you figure the tide is going to turn."

Maybe, this should be what Goosen is known for. Not being unflappable, but fighting through his very human falls. Of course, that isn't as satisfying as the lightning enlightened story.

A tried and true Goose tale

Lightning struck Goosen when he was 16, during a round of golf. It knocked him unconscious, singed his clothes, left burn marks on his body, including some on his feet that made putting on shoes impossible.

"I was playing golf with my cousin and there was actually thunder in the area,'' Goosen said. "And we actually all stopped play. We all went to the shelter areas. About an hour later or so everybody started going back on the course. It looked like it had passed, because the thunder storms in South Africa tend to come in pretty quickly and leave pretty quickly."

Only fate wasn't shinning so brightly on Goosen this day.

"We'd just teed off on the seventh hole, and I remember hitting my tee shot down the right side, so you had to sort of walk past a clump of trees to get where the ball was,'' he said. "And I was really right next to the trees when the lightning hit. And that was that.

"Next time, I woke up I was in the hospital."

Goosen still keeps the remains of his vaporized clothes and clubs from that day.

"You can't make out the clothes, the clubs are all burned in places," he said.

The lightning tale is made all the easier for everyone to latch onto because it's the only story many people have heard about Goosen.

Goosen's third-place finish at the Masters could not have been any quieter if he played his rounds on an empty course. Tiger Woods induced the wows, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson waged war over spike size, Ernie Els watched his game blow up, David Duval style.

Goosen? He was there? Oh yeah, that's the guy steadily making his way around Augusta's pines, hitting almost everything solid, nothing spectacular. Goosen's final-round 67, the lowest round on Sunday by anyone, ended up reduced to agate type in many U.S. newspapers.

His U.S. Open collapse could not have been louder, especially with so many having declared the trophy his on Saturday night. His British Open meltdown went largely unnoticed, because he was out of the lead when he started bogeying early on Sunday.

Such is life for Goosen, just outside the so-called Big Four. Goosen is like the forgotten fifth Beatle, good enough to get into the picture but not always the conversation.

Only now, the PGA Championship is here and more and more people are starting to talk Retief again.

Some pros are comparing Baltusrol's newly lengthened Lower Course to a U.S. Open setup. Scrapers win U.S. Open courses. And Retief Goosen may be the most resolute scraper in golf.

"I like the golf courses really tough,'' Goosen said. "The more you have to start grinding it out, the better."

A wild and crazy guy?

This version of Retief Goosen is sort of blowing up at age 36. Well, as much as a guy who would fit right into a crowd of engineers with pocket protectors can blow up. Goosen's branched outside of the golf world as a celebrity endorser now, hawking Grey Goose Vodka in a new ad campaign. (Golf's supposed wallflower pushing vodka? Perfect.) He's also moved into the world of golf course design, setting up a firm in his native South Africa that's already begun planning on three courses.

Not that Goosen obsesses over courses in his regular job. Unlike many of the top pros who found a way to get in a few Baltusrol rounds before this championship week ever arrived, Goosen routinely does not play major championship courses until he's in an official practice round.

"I'm not really somebody that likes to go to a golf course too early,'' he said. "If you go to a major four, five days before the tournament. I feel like by the time the tournament comes you're sort of brain dead, you're sort of over prepared. You can over prepare, I think."

Can you imagine Vijay Singh ever saying such a thing? It turns out Retief may not be as conventional as people think.

Despite his reputation for quiet seriousness, Goosen shows plenty of signs he's more carefree than a lot of people think. He was disqualified for the Nissan Open after he overslept and missed his 6:40 a.m. pro-am tee time. The night before, he been out promoting Grey Goose Vodka at a cocktail party.

Okay, he'd been out till about 6 p.m. Still, for this guy it's a start.

Goosen's also started speaking up more recently, even on controversial issues. He argues that women should have to qualify to play in men's events, rather than being given sponsor exemptions into the field. Even if one of those women garnering those exemptions in the future could be fellow South African Ashleigh Simon.

Not that Goosen's childhood buddy and countryman Ernie Els heard that or much of anything else during their final round U.S. Open pairing at Shinnecock in 2004.

"He didn't say anything to me,'' Els said then. "It was kind of spooky."

Els ended up posting a 10-over-par 80 that day. Who says you cannot intimidate by staying mum?

Now Goosen is looking to make Baltusrol's unique closing back-to-back par 5s the stage for his latest, tough course championship. Goosen does not like those tournaments where the numbers go silly low. In fact, there's plenty of question whether he has the game to win in that fashion. Goosen had four top 10 finishes early this year, but he only shot lower than five-under in one of them. He wins when a course curtails the other top players' spectacular shotmaking. That was his story. Of course, then he won the International where it is all about birdies and eagles in the Stableford.

Go figure? Or just life.

Retief Goosen does not need lightning to strike. That's not his game. That much he knows. No matter what you think.

For The Record

U.S. Open wins: 2001, 2004
PGA Tour wins: Three
International wins: 17
2005 wins: One (last week)

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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