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Archive for Sunday, June 19, 2005

Stoic Goosen still U.S. Open standard

June 19, 2005

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— The ball took one last turn and dropped into the cup for birdie, making Retief Goosen more than just the sole survivor of par at Pinehurst No. 2.

Goosen seized control of the U.S. Open on Saturday with three birdies on the final five holes, the last a 25-footer from just off the 18th green that gave him a 1-under 69 - one of two rounds under par - and a three-shot lead over journeymen Olin Browne and Jason Gore.

The 35-year-old South African now is just 18 holes away from his third U.S. Open title in five years, a chance to join Curtis Strange as the only back-to-back winners in the last 50 years.

He has history on his side, and no one with major championship credentials within four shots. The last six U.S. Open champs have started the final round with the lead, dating to Payne Stewart in 1999.

Goosen certainly has the demeanor - birdies and bogeys are met with the same, placid stare - but no one can question he has the game for the toughest test in golf.

"That's what you need on a course like this - no heartbeat and a great short game," Arron Oberholser said.

Goosen finished at 3-under 207 and will play in the final group today with Gore, who is No. 818 in the world ranking and showed plenty of grit with three nifty par saves and a 15-foot birdie on the final hole for a 72.

Browne, No. 300 in the world who got into the U.S. Open by shooting 59 in a qualifier, also hung tough with birdies on three of the par 3s for a 72 to finish the third round tied with Gore at 210.

Michael Campbell (71) and Mark Hensby (72) were another stroke behind.

Only Goosen and U.S. Senior Open champion Peter Jacobsen managed to break par in dry, fiery conditions played under a blazing sun, which made the domed greens off limits to all but the most exquisite shots - and Jacobsen needed a hole in one on No. 9 to do it.

Goosen had his share of troubles, making a mess of the 13th hole with a wedge that went over the green and a chip that went back down the fairway. But he recovered with spectacular shots, starting with a 6-iron out of a fairway bunker, fading slightly toward the middle of the green to 30 feet for birdie.

The big names - and that includes some of the Big Five with which Goosen is only loosely associated - face the toughest task of all. They need to make birdies on a course that doesn't allow many, or hope that Goosen comes tumbling back to par and beyond.

David Toms, who gave up five shots on his final two holes Friday, hit an approach shot that bumped into a bird on the 18th green, then made his 10-foot birdie for a 70 that put him at 2-over 212.

Tiger Woods couldn't hit the fairway with a 2-iron on two of the first three holes and made bogeys, but played even par the rest of the way for a 72 that left him in a group at 3-over 213. Woods has never won when trailing by more than five shots going into the last round on the PGA Tour.

Vijay Singh failed to make birdie in his round of 74, leaving him at 214 and seven shots behind.

The only thing keeping the Goose from joining just five other players with at least three U.S. Open titles is Pinehurst No. 2, a course that can dole out punishment at any time.

"It is nice having a lead going into the last round," Goosen said. "If it was 12 shots, I'd probably be a little more comfortable, but it's going to be a hard day out there tomorrow. Anything can happen on this course. You can lose three shots very quickly around here."

Goosen lost them on two holes.

His tee shot on the 12th went right into a sandy area, landing just beyond a patch of wire grass. He missed the green to the left and took bogey. Then came the 378-yard 13th, the toughest hole in the third round.

From the left rough, his ball rolled over the crown of the green and left him a delicate chip. He misjudged the speed ever so slightly and watched the ball tumble off the front of the green and back down to the fairway. Goosen pitched up to about 10 feet and rimmed the cup for a double bogey.

Suddenly, no one was under par in the U.S. Open. And with a mean stretch of holes in front of him and the other leaders, it figured to only get worse. Goosen's next tee shot again sailed to the right and into a bunker.

One swing turned everything around.

From a downhill, sidehill lie in the bunker, he shaped a 6-iron from left-to-right to the middle of the green, an ideal spot even for someone in the middle of the fairway. That was followed by another perfect 6-iron on the par-3 15th to the middle of the green for birdie from 15 feet.

Goosen had good looks at birdie on the next two holes, lipping out from 10 feet on the 17th, before he sent a powerful message with the 25-footer that trickled into the 18th hole on its last turn: This is one cool customer.

"That guy might be the most underrated of all of them," Browne said, noting how Goosen often gets left out of conversations involving Woods, Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. "That guy just goes about his business."

Gore was one of the few guys who left Pinehurst with a smile, and for good reason.

Beefy and lovable, he was greeted by cheers at every turn by a gallery charmed by his longshot bid in a third round when everyone expected him to collapse under the pressure.

He almost did, chopping up the 14th hole so badly that he had to two-putt from 20 feet for double bogey. He missed the 15th green to the left and saved par with an 8-footer, came up short on the 16th and saved par from 6 feet, then got up-and-down for par from behind the 17th green.

When his birdie putt fell on the final hole, he crouched and pointed to the hole, then raised his putter.

"Crazy stuff happens," he said. "I thought everybody was lying until today came around."

Can he actually beat the Goose?

"I'm in the final pairing," he said. "I've come this far. If they invite me out on the 18th green and they hand me a large piece of silver, that will be pretty special."

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