Retief Goosen has the perfect demeanor for both golf and poker. Getting a read on him is not unlike looking at a book written in Sanskrit. His emotions don't run too high or too low. His steady-as-it-goes approach that has paid him dividends in golf.
Currently ranked 5th in the world he has just come off a victory at the International proving again to himself and the world that he can win. Any doubt about his ability to win would have never entered the picture, had he not stumbled in the final round of this year's U.S. Open. Goosen, after all, is Mr. Clutch.
Retief was introduced to golf by his father, Theo Goosen, who took a serious approach to parenting. "Look, I never made life easy for my kids," said Theo. "We never spoiled them. We never pleasurized them." In typical Goosen fashion Retief admits that his father, "Does have a tendency to apply a bit of pressure."
This did not prevent Retief from calling his parents the day after his playoff win at the 2001 U.S. Open. Theo said, "I was so emotional, I couldn't speak. I just wept." Few words seem to be the Goosen way.
Retief has described himself as "shy, quiet, a loner" and yes, we can see that. The fact that he's probably the quietest guy on Tour hasn't ruined his reputation. He is respected for his deliberate approach to life and golf. There was a day when Goosen was not so collected. He has worked very hard in recent years personally and with a sports psychologist to get his emotions in check. A friend once spoke of "that little black thing" in him "that may have come from his youth, making him a very mean guy sometimes."
Sooner or later golf is bound to teach you patience and forgivenss. Either you learn this lesson or golf will punish you. Goosen once admitted, "My temperament used to be the worst part of my game growning up." Apparently he would break clubs and throw things out of sheer frustration. Not surprisingly his game suffered.
He said recently, "If you hit a bad shot, you just have to forget it, or the wheels can come off. Some people bitch and moan and throw clubs for five minutes. Forget it, focus on the next shot, and stay positive. That's how you save shots." Something tells me that Retief learned that lesson through the school of hard knocks.
Goosen turned pro in 1990 but it wasn't until 2001 that he joined the PGA Tour. He spent most of his career in his native South Africa and on the European Tour. His 2001 U.S. Open victory was a springboard for several PGA Tour wins. He has won six times on Tour, two of those Major victories. Between 1996 and 2004 he has won 11 times on the European Tour.
The only statistic that Goosen leads this season on the PGA Tour is the "Par-5 Birdie or Better" category. His all around game, however, is very strong. He is 5th in the "All-Around Ranking" on Tour and his ability to excel in multiple facets of the game is why he is 5th in the World Golf Rankings.
It takes a lot to rattle the likes of Goosen, but on April 28, 2001 he had one of the most nerve racking days of his life. No, it wasn't his 2001 U.S. Open victory that had him sweating, it was navigating wedding vows that gave him the quivers. Retief met Tracy Pottick in 2001 and after a couple of invitations she had dinner with him. Tracy said, "Retief was a real gentleman--and, happily, persistent." After the wedding ceremony Retief said, "If I can do this, I can do anything."
Tracy played a big part in helping him overcome self-doubt and pessimism about his golf game and life in general. "She struggled with me," Retief says of his wife. "I was a bit of a tough guy in the beginning. She's changed a lot in me; I was just too serious. I try to enjoy life more now. She knew the potential was there, and I just didn't believe it."
Two months after tying the knot Retief won his first event in the States, the 2001 U.S. Open. It was a foreshadowing of future success on the PGA Tour.
Until recently Retief Goosen was thought to be invincible in pressure situations. His calm demeanor and focused determination have contributed to his reputation as a consistent closer. He stared Phil Mickelson down in what was one of Phil's strongest years at the 2004 U.S Open and won. This year's U.S. Open was a little different. When the last golfer walked off the course Saturday Goosen was out in front by three strokes. That Goosen would capture back-to-back U.S. Opens was almost a foregone conclusion. Before Sunday's round Ernie Els said, "I don't think there's any player better than him in U.S. Open conditions, Tiger included."
The only problem was that the sun came out Sunday morning and it wasn't long before "Ice-Man" started melting. Before long the network turned their attention from Goosen and crowd-favorite Jason Gore to Woods and Campbell and Goosen and Gore began betting on holes to keep themselves interested. When it was all over Goosen had posted an uncharacteristic 81 and finished 11th in a Major championship that was his for the taking.
Afterwards Goosen resisted bolting for the parking lot and spoke to the press about his round. "I played rubbish at the end of the day," he said. "There is nothing else to say." We all learned that Goosen is human. He kept things in perspective. "This is nothing serious," he said. "Nobody has died, I think, or anything. I had a great Father's Day this morning with the kids. And the family is a lot more important than playing anyone out there."
It is well known that Goosen was struck by lightening on the golf course in his later teen years. A storm had moved in and the course was empied. Goosen and his partners were waiting the storm out and after the weather cleared they returned to their place. Retief had teed off and hit his ball down the right side of the fairway. His ball came to rest near a tree. Lightening struck as he reached his ball. He doesn't remember the hours following the incident, but his clubs, clothes and shoes were all singed. He was unable to put his shoes on for weeks afterwords. He recovered enough to grab another set of clubs and take up the game a few weeks later.
Goosen's choice of putters, the Yes! Tracy, has popularized the whole anti-skid putter movement and put the Yes! putter company on the map. Other companies, most notably, TaylorMade with their AGSI technology have jumped on the anti-skid bandwagon. The Yes! putter company has a dedicated fan base in large part to Goosen's wins on Tour.
For what he may lack in verbosity Goosen makes up for in the poetry of his golf swing. He has an enviable swing that is much like his fellow South African Ernie Els. "People always ask me if Ernie Els and I grew up with the same coach," says Goosen, "probably because we're both from South Africa, and we've both made rhythm a big part of our swings." Goosen has earned the title "The Little Easy" for being so much like Ernie in this respect.
Rhythm and timing have been my focus since I got serious about the game. It hasn't really been any more complicated than that. I struggle when my transition gets a bit too quick, and I lose the feeling of smoothness between my backswing and downswing.
Goosen has grooved one of the most fundamentally sound and rhythmic swings in golf with the help of coach Butch Harmon. Couple his great rhythm with a cool head and you have a golfer who can handle intense pressure situations. Well, most intense pressure situations.
I wouldn't be a bit surprised to discover that Retief's most successful days on Tour are ahead of him. He's learned how to overcome himself, how to win, and most of all how to keep golf in perspective.
They say that actions speak louder than words. While Retief Goosen isn't known for his verbosity he has learned to speak another language: the language of action. To understand Goosen you've got to learn how to listen.
Photo Credit: © Ann Heisenfelt, AP.