A master of irony he is not, but even Retief Goosen got the joke last week. Following the second round of the BellSouth Classic, during which Goosen had made two eagles and shot 66 to surge to within a stroke of the lead, he said with a chuckle, "It's actually quite funny, but I am not playing well at all." Funnier still is that he played even worse over the weekend yet marched to a commanding victory over Jesper Parnevik and Phil Mickelson.
Last Saturday, Goosen hit only seven greens in regulation, but he stitched together a 68 with a flawless wedge game and a scandalously low 22 putts. On Sunday, Goosen started bogey, double bogey and hit only eight fairways, yet he ground out a 70 and won by four strokes thanks to more clutch putting and an exquisite, tide-turning chip-in for eagle on the par-5 4th hole at the TPC at Sugarloaf, outside Atlanta. This was Goosen's second victory in the U.S., following his surprise win in last June's U.S. Open. Many American fans may be surprised to hear that, in between, he has been the world's hottest (male) golfer, winning five international titles, including a Woodsian romp at the Johnnie Walker Classic, during which Goosen built a European tour-record 13-stroke lead through three rounds. This 10-month rampage has propelled Goosen, 33, from 44th to fourth in the World Ranking.
What makes his latest victory so intriguing is that the hard, fast conditions at Sugarloaf were an excellent precursor to this week's "annual spring putting contest," as Johnny Miller once called the Masters. "I definitely think this is a good test for [the Masters]," Goosen said. "You know, a lot of the sort of bump-and-run shots and very quick, slopey greens."
In three previous appearances at Augusta, Goosen has had a middling 40th-place finish and two missed cuts, including last year's early departure when he was slowed by a pulled muscle in his chest. Still, he has proved that he's not afraid to break through in a big way—until the U.S. Open his best finish in the U.S. had been 12th.
Goosen is a prototype of what we might quaintly call the 20th-century Masters champ—the Olaz�bals and the Crenshaws and the O'Mearas, who bunted the ball around a benign, wide-open course and took the tournament hostage with putters that may as well have been pocket knives. The pumped-up new Augusta National is widely believed to favor a long hitter like Mickelson, even as he continues to become golf's version of Reggie Jackson, a prolific slugger prone to embarrassing whiffs. Goosen is more like Joe Morgan, a gritty scrapper who can beat you in many ways, not the least being with his determination.
"I like it when it's tough out there, and you really have to grind your way around," Goosen said on Sunday, and this wasn't mere bluster. At one point during the third round of last year's U.S. Open, Goosen missed six greens in seven holes and got up and down every time. With each ensuing victory, that gaudy performance looks less like a fluke and more like a game plan. In an era obsessed with power, on the longest, hardest layout in Masters history, Goosen's short game may deliver the perfect punch line.