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Showdown at Shinnecock
Retief Goosen who managed to come through a near impossible exam at Shinnecock with a four-under par total thwarted the USGA's determination that its Open Championship should be won with a level par at best. On greens surfaced with linoleum, laid over concrete and contoured by an inebriated psychopath, Goosen required only 24 putts in the concluding round when many took over 40. It was a performance of great character that revealed the real mettle of the man and one not made easier by his companion for the day, his compatriot and friend, Ernie Els, playing like a demented springbok on speed.

Goosen's traverse of Shinnecock's rolling hills was not a walk in the park for he was stalked all the way by the thundering tread of the mighty Mickelson. Thankfully, he was spared, although tele-viewer's were not, Mickelson's maniacal grin. Mickelson's new found facial expression must be the product of plastic surgery for it appears permanent and manages to convey pleasure at the same time as threat - not unlike a satiated Hannibal Lecter.

Mickelson clearly enjoys his new role as pretender to Tiger Woods' throne. The partisan crowd of New Yorkers, out at the Hamptons for the day on the train, enjoyed his presumption even more in their vulgarly voiced support. Mickelson already knew that he 'was the man', before Shinnecock on Sunday but the crowd reinforced his knowledge anyway [endlessly - Ed]. What they failed to realise was that there was another 'man' in the field, less flaky although perhaps less fulsome, who was not prepared to play to their script.

Goosen has no flamboyance and even less charisma. Indeed, he is the antithesis of the all-American boy-makes-good. For a start, he is South African; he does not punch the air; he does not burst into tears; he does not stride out, swagger or strut, buoyed with the accolades. Goosen goes about his business as a professional golfer with the same clinical calm of a slightly stressed brain surgeon. He makes mistakes like all clinicians, but with skill and determination he puts things to rights reassuringly. Mickelson on the other hand has all of the skill, the confidence and the necessary looks for the job, but one always feels that he can drop the scalpel with lethal consequences at the crucial moment.

Mickelson retained a firm grip of things throughout the last round of the Masters in May. The event brought a collective sigh of American relief that induced a tornado of hyperbole that had already awarded him the Shinnecock Open and even the Grand Slam. He continued to retain a firm grip of things through 16 holes of the last round at Shinnecock too, before realisation struck. Phil double-bogeyed the short 17th when in a share of the lead. On a notoriously difficult green, it was a disastrous three-putt after having putted superbly to save par on countless holes before.

Phil Mickelson will doubtless reflect that the 17th green at Shinnecock put paid to his second Major win in a year while failing to recall the numberless putts that he holed to stay in contention. Mickelson did not lose the Open at Shinnecock on the 17th green; Goosen won the US Open with a succession of saves, epitomised at the eighth where he did not disturb the fairway on a wayward route to salvage par with a 14-foot putt across a shaved hillside. But it was at the 14th hole that Goosen had to dig deepest to come up with the stuff of a champion.

The 14th a Shinnecock encapsulates the whole course and its play. From a high tee set just beside the clubhouse, the hole sweeps down into a gully in a slow curve to the right before ending in a high set plateau green that is viciously contoured and is guarded by bunkers on both sides. The hole invites the player to bite off more than he can chew of the slow curve of the fairway and the consequence is commonly a second shot from penalising rough. In the penultimate game, Mickelson made the hole look easy with a long iron followed by a lofted second shot to below the flag, settling with his new-found intelligent self-control and course management, for a par at worst.

Goosen also found the fairway but went out to win the championship with a bold 9-iron that was designed to land the ball on the edge of the right hand bunker from where it would release down to the hole. Although the famed wind off the bay failed to blow throughout, it blew enough on Sunday to guide Goosen's ball only inches inside the bunker into a fried-egg lie. But yet determined upon that elusive birdie, the South African attempted a bunker shot of such delicacy that it bordered on the foolhardy.

Almost inevitably, he left his ball on the bunker's grassy fringe and any hope of a par was gone. Goosen was staring at a double, if not a triple-bogey situation; the fact that he got up and down to leave the green only dropping one shot speaks volumes for his touch and composure as well as his sphincter control.

Mickelson played magnificently throughout the last round to find himself tied on the 17th tee. It was long since clear that only an error or the fortuity of a long putt or a chip-in would resolve the situation. Mickelson resolved the stalemate by obliging with a tee shot into a bunker at the 17th. Goosen found the same bunker and in the same place in it, but whereas Mickelson required a further four shots to finish the hole, Goosen required only two. It was enough to give Goosen a two shot cushion to keep Mickelson's name off the US Open Championship trophy and re-introduce the lad to reality.

©    21 - JUNE 2004

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