March 23, 2009

Seeing Is Believing

Fighting vision problems but putting like his old self, Retief Goosen is tops in Tampa, his first PGA Tour win in nearly four years

feeling fabulous at 40: Having recently rededicated himself to the game, Goosen had the answers on a tough layout that tested players in a major way.

feeling fabulous at 40: Having recently rededicated himself to the game, Goosen had the answers on a tough layout that tested players in a major way.

Magnolia Lane is a lousy place to go looking for a golf game. It better come through the front gate with you. Band-Aids won't stop the bleeding at Augusta National, and the Masters isn't an Easter egg hunt. If Clifford Roberts had been a soothsayer, his cautionary warning to all invitees would have been: Beware the Ides of March.

Rarely, unless it's 1986 all over again, does someone completely off the boil wind up in a green jacket. With Augusta just a few weeks away, it's time to start paying attention to whose game is heating up—and whose isn't—which means Retief Goosen suddenly is relevant again.

On greens as crusty as old Mr. Roberts himself, where approach shots brought up clouds of dust like puffs of smoke announcing a new pope, Goosen showed the same kind of putting mastery that won the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills as he edged Charles Howell III and Brett Quigley by a shot to win the Transitions Championship on the Innisbrook Resort and GC's Copperhead Course with an eight-under 276.

Goosen never missed a putt inside five feet and didn't three-putt all week. Not bad for a guy with one good eye. His previous best showing of the year (not counting the Sunshine Tour Africa Open, which he also won) was a third place in the rain-shortened ATT Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. There, Goosen was, literally, a new man. He had shed a stone or so in weight, wore prescription sunglasses, used a belly putter, had a swing coach for the first time in years and put his brother-in-law on the bag.

By the time he got to Innisbrook, the glasses were gone and so was the belly putter. He kept the brother-in-law. He had also had his right eye lasered, again, and tried to wear a contact lens in the left one except it was so uncomfortable that, in the final round, he took it out after about six holes. All the better to make everything he squinted at, my dear.

Goosen's devotion to fitness was precipitated in the off-season by a glance in the mirror coupled with the appalling approach of his 40th birthday, which finally overtook him in February. He went into the final round at the Copperhead trailing his fellow competitor, Tom Lehman, by one shot and 10 years. Lehman, trying to become the seventh fiftysomething to win on the PGA Tour, struggled somewhat predictably Sunday and was five over par on his round by the time he holed a meaningless monster putt on the 17th. Goosen, no spring chicken, was a bit stiff out of the blocks himself.

Failing to birdie the par-5 first hole and then bogeying the second after a poor drive into the left rough, Goosen finally made something good happen when he chipped in from behind the ninth green for birdie. That got him back to seven under par but two behind Charlie Wi, who had gone out in 32 and added another birdie at the par-5 11th, and one behind Steve Stricker, who played the front nine in 34 and also birdied the 11th.

Two things pivoted matters in Goosen's favor. First, he reached the 11th with a drive and a 5-iron and holed the 17-foot eagle putt to leapfrog to nine under. And second, most everyone else came a cropper. Stricker, who stumbled down the stretch at both the Bob Hope Classic in Palm Springs and the Northern Trust Open at Riviera CC earlier this year, finished bogey-bogey for 278. A resurgent Howell, the Augusta native who needed a win to get back into the Masters, birdied the 11th, 12th and 14th before back-to-back bogeys on the 15th and 16th doomed his chances, absent an assist from Goosen. Wi bogeyed the 13th, 15th and 18th. Of the players in contention, only Quigley—who has never won on tour but has now finished second two weeks in a row—didn't make a bogey on the treacherous back nine.

Goosen didn't exactly make it easy on himself coming home, either. He bogeyed the 16th when he overcut a 6-iron into the right bunker, dropping his lead to a single stroke. On the 17th he missed the green long and right with a 5-wood but got up and down impressively from the thick rye rough. Then he drove it in the fairway on the 18th, flew his 7-iron directly over the pin, ran the screamingly fast downhill putt nearly five feet by and made it coming back in the left edge for his first U.S. tour victory since the International (RIP) in '05, the same year he spit the bit Sunday in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

It's not entirely clear how the moss-colored coats of Augusta National will go about putting the fun back in the funhouse in a couple of weeks, or if they'll even bother. After all, the masters of the Masters' universe have never been ones to bend to the whimsy of the outside world. If the combination of course changes and challenging weather conspire once again to skew the toonamint in the direction of the strateegerists (as Will Farrell might say), at least the Copperhead Course will have offered a heads-up on which of the dinkers, dunkers or petit-bombers are currently on form.

Lehman

In addition to Goosen, Masters defender Trevor Immelman made a cameo appearance on the board. Stuart Appleby was there. Stricker, if he remembers how to finish. Nick Watney, whose power game traveled nicely from Miami to Tampa, remains one of the hottest players on tour, long or short. Among the early suspects was Jim Furyk who took the first-round lead with an impressive six-under 65. Oops. The '03 U.S. Open champion very nearly pulled a Pampling when he led on Day One, then almost missed the cut with a second-day, 34-putt 78. This rare feat is, of course, named for Rod, who did the nasty deed at Carnasty in the '99 British Open.

One player who is most assuredly not a dinker or a dunker is El Bomba, the 26-year-old long-hitting Spaniard, Alvaro Quiros, who, along with the 17-year-old Japanese, Ryo Ishikawa, were the charm bracelet on the Copperhead Course. If Quiros (who has dagger-shaped sideburns and travels with a hat box), Ishikawa (who has a self-portrait headcover that looks as if it belongs on a chair between Statler and Waldorf in the Muppets theater) and the Irish lad, Rory McIlroy, are any indication, the future of golf will not only be entertaining but exceedingly genial.

Lehman did a reasonable impression of Greg Norman at Royal Birkdale, bringing his golf game out of mothballs long enough to take the 54-hole lead at eight-under 205, one ahead of Goosen and three up on Immelman, Appleby, Jonathan Byrd and Howell.

Sidelined by tendinitis at the end of last year and, by his own admission, playing horribly at the beginning of '09, Lehman stopped over-swinging and found his timing like a pair of reading glasses he had forgotten were perched on top of his head. "I always wanted to be able to leave this tour when I felt like my game [was] still good," said Lehman about playing with the kids. "I don't want to leave basically being kind of shown the door."

All well and good, but there are reasons why geezers rarely win on the PGA Tour. It's hard to make a full shoulder turn wearing a shawl. It was a heck of an effort, though, against a bunch of guys priming for the Spring Dance.