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. 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."