For a player whose placid demeanor is known worldwide, lightning sure has a funny way of showing up on the course for Retief Goosen. It’s probably best to start from the beginning, when he had his closest encounter with it.
When Goosen was 15, he was already a golf prodigy in his native South Africa, on his way to a stunning 30 amateur titles. He was playing with his cousin Henri Potgieter on their home course in Pietersburg, when he pushed a drive into the trees off the seventh fairway. The skies opened, and a bolt of lightning consumed both Goosen and the trees. It was serious: The explosion welded his irons together, melted his golf shoes and burned the clothes off his body.
Potgieter thought his cousin was dead, but in yet another remarkable on-course occurrence, a doctor was in the group behind the boys and attended to Goosen. He spent six days in the hospital and emerged a different person, going for a bit of a daredevil to more of a shy, quiet type. “That’s what his mum thinks,” fellow South African, childhood friend and now fellow Hall of Famer Ernie Els told Golf Digest.
"My dad was a pretty good player at one stage, and my two older brothers played golf as well. So there were always golf clubs flying around the house." -Retief Goosen
While the strike may have tempered his personality, it did nothing to stunt his golf prowess—he turned pro in 1990 at the age of 21. And despite notching three victories on the European Tour in the 1990s, he would have to wait until after the turn of the century for another shot of major electricity.
In 2001, everything came together for the Goose. Three victories earned him the European Tour Order of Merit and Player of the Year honors, the biggest of which came at the U.S. Open.
Frustration boiled in the oppressive heat of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Southern Hills Country Club, where the controversial setup of the 18th green on Sunday led to three of the most notorious three-putts in U.S. Open history, including Goosen’s stomach-churning miss from just 2 feet. And yet he remained unfazed, showing no emotion as he trudged into an 18-hole Monday playoff with Mark Brooks. “I’ll be OK,” he said, and proceeded to one-putt eight of his first 10 holes on his way to a two-stroke victory and his first Major Championship.
He kept the momentum going in the following seasons, becoming the first non-European to win the European Tour’s Order of Merit in consecutive seasons in 2002 and earning victories on the PGA TOUR at the 2002 BellSouth Classic and the 2003 Chrysler Championship.
And in 2004, thunder rolled again. This time Goosen found himself leading by two strokes going into the final round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. With Els and Phil Mickelson hot on his tail, the Goose battled with the future Hall of Famers and yet another controversial course setup.
With the rowdy New York galleries pulling hard for Mickelson and the greens so baked that they required watering during the final round, Goosen buried a 40-footer for birdie on the opening hole and got up-and-down four times on the front nine alone. On a day when the scoring average was the second-highest in U.S. Open history, and for the first time in 41 years no player shot under par, Goosen’s even keel once again served him well as players all around him burned up with the burnt out greens.
Mickelson, playing in the group ahead, briefly pulled into the lead with a birdie at 16 that had the fans roaring, but Goosen calmly leveled things with a birdie of his own. On the par-3 17th, both players hit their tee shots into the same bunker. Mickelson sent his shot five feet past the hole, leaving a tricky downhill putt. He missed, and then missed the comebacker. But the unflappable Goosen blasted out to three feet and his par putt was never in doubt. The championship, again, was his.
“I’m immensely proud to be on this trophy,” said Goosen, “and to be on it twice is unbelievable.”
Despite all the drama surrounding his career on the course, Goosen maintains his cool off the course. He’s passionate about his family, supporting South African charities and his burgeoning wine label.
But deep down, a Hall of Famer always burns to win. For the usually guarded Goosen, it was difficult to explain his incredible putting display at Shinnecock, but he tried: “Inside, you are nervous. Looking at it [from the outside] everything looks smooth and comfortable and slow. You make the putts when you’re in that mode.”