June 25, 2007

Retief's red face

Goosen looked like someone else at Pinehurst, and Michael Campbell was there to take the Open

Retief Goosen's real name is Red Gresham. He changed it for obvious reasons. As Red Gresham, a man out of Boney Rock, Ala., he was wanted in three states for armed robbery and car theft. It was only after he assumed this new identity and devoted his life to Prozac, Xanax and dominating U.S. Open golf championships—one way or another—that we've come to know him.

People are still fooled by his looks. Retief, or Red, stands there and smiles at you like he understands that your shoe size is an 11D, and he'll see if they have it in brown, or that you've forgiven him for not bringing the wheat toast with your oatmeal. Polite, cordial, nice.

But what you don't know is that he has just slit all four of your tires and picked the lock of your trunk to steal the file cabinet that you bought at Office Depot an hour ago.

How Red arrived at the name Retief Goosen is an interesting story.

One day back in '96, as he was passing back through his hometown, having recently knocked over a PGA merchandise tent, he ran into a pal, L.N. Slocum, who said, "Red, you know I had to retief my mouth after I got in a fight with old Beely Tubbs last month."

"Retief." Red said. "I like that name."

Then, later on, as they were driving around in L.N.'s car, having knocked over a couple of convenience stores, Red said, "Cain't this thing go no faster, L.N.?"

L.N. said, "Hail, Red, I'm goosin' it hard as I can."

That's when Red said, "Goosen. Has a sound to it, don't it?"

From that moment on, he was no longer Red Gresham; he was Retief Goosen. You might wonder why he chose South Africa as his new native country. It's because he remembered going to a zoo one time when he was a kid and being fascinated by wild animals.

Retief, or Red, eventually took up playing tournament golf because it looked easier than most real jobs. Plus it was the nearest thing he could find to stealing. He saw where they paid you all this money whether you ever won anything or not, or said anything interesting or not.

He studied a little golf history as well and quickly saw that if he won U.S. Opens he could get rich and aggravate people at the same time, especially those in the press centers who favored golfers who spoke.

So with his smooth, perfect swing—no dangling parts—he won two of them, at Southern Hills in '01 and Shinnecock Hills in '04, by hitting fairways and greens and never missing a single putt of any length. And for three rounds at Pinehurst No. 2 this past June he was still The Calm Man Who Wins Opens.

He looked very much like he was going to win a third Open and join a select list: Hogan, Jones, Nicklaus, Anderson, Irwin. Those people. After solid, boring rounds of 68, 70 and 69, Retief led by three strokes through 54 holes over a gathering of, well, virus pop-ups, let's say. The Jason Gores, Olin Brownes and Mark Hensbys. Everyday guys who looked like everybody drinking loudly underneath my window every evening at the Pine Crest Inn.

Retief, or Red, was very much a part of the story in Sunday's final round as the firm of Destiny, Fate Luck paid him back for all those incredible putts he sank at Shinnecock a year ago when he was swiping the trophy from Phil Mickelson.

Payback meant Goosen was mauled by the course so relentlessly that he turned Tiger Woods, one of the worst statistical putters in the field, into a contender. Incidentally, there are those who think it's about time Tiger started missing putts. For eight years he's been stroking everything right into the throat.

Woods had started the day six strokes and six players behind Goosen, but as Retief staggered toward his round of 11-over-par 81—one of the great collapses in Open history for a 54-hole leader, and perhaps not as surprising as we made it out to be at first, considering Retief's second-round 82 at Pinehurst in '99—Tiger was in the hunt before anyone could say back nine.

In fact, Tiger's closing round of a mere one-under 69 earned him his second silver medal in a major, leaving him only 17 behind Jack Nicklaus in the runner-up-in-majors derby.

Meanwhile, Retief's can't-stop-the-bleeding performance enabled him to join a swell list of last-round collapsers, all of whom mastered the art of missing putts of four, five and six feet, ostensibly because of the stirring of rabbits in their stomachs.

Among this historian's favorites are Mike Brady, whose 80 at Brae Burn in '19 gave Walter Hagen the title; Joe Turnesa at Scioto in '26, whose 77 hoisted the cup into the hands of Bobby Jones; Dick Metz at Cherry Hills in '38, who stumbled to a 79 and allowed Ralph Guldahl to take his second Open in a row; Bert Yancey's painful 76 at Oak Hill in '68, which introduced us to Lee Trevino; and T.C. Chen's 77 at Oakland Hills in '85, which plopped Andy North into our laps again.

But the thing about Retief, he still didn't look as if it bothered him at Pinehurst, just as winning never seemed to bother him. Maybe Nick Price said it best about his countryman.

"I do think his heart races," said Price. "But he's like a duck on a pond. You don't know how fast his feet are going."

One of the nicest things about the 2005 Open—to me, at least—is that the winning score came in at even-par 280 on a great golf course that didn't even have slick greens, and never got a whine or a whimper out of the contestants. It was a testy rough, and those "unmade beds"—the crowned greens of Donald Ross—that baffled and tortured the field. A reminder that the best players in the world look all too human when they take on a layout that has some good defenses.

It was a good going-away party for the often-maligned Tom Meeks, the U.S. Golf Association's outgoing senior director of rules and competitions. Meeks has taken his share of hits over the years, mostly from the players, for his course setups and pin positions and green speed. But some of us have generally said, "Who cares what the players think? For the kind of prize money that's out there, let 'em play on gravel."

Some of us also remember what Joe Dey often said when confronted with a complaint: "You play the course the way you find it."

Oh, I almost forgot. Thanks largely to Retief Goosen, the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 was won by some knock-around guy named Michael Campbell. Fellow from New Zealand. But this one is right-handed, I think.

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