Quiet man Goosen the talk of Europe

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The Independent Online

The scene was a perfect summer's evening beside Loch Lomond in 1997. At a clinic for their equipment manufacturer, two South Africans were simultaneously swinging away from the first tee. Ernie Els, just crowned the US Open champion for a second time, was his usual graceful, easy self. Retief Goosen's action, all elegance and languid power, lost nothing in comparison.

Where they differed was in the verbals department, a necessary part of the act to inform and entertain the audience. Els was left providing a one-man commentary. "Jeez, Goose, you're quiet tonight," he chided his friend at one point. Goosen has always been one of the quiet men of the golfing circuit and neither winning his own US Open crown in June, nor securing the European Order of Merit on Sunday, will change that.

After a season to shout about, however, it is clear the 32-year-old from Pietersburg has changed in several ways. Take his preferred method of celebrating. When Goosen won the European Qualifying School in France over six exhausting rounds in 1992, his response was to jump on an overnight flight back home and tee up in a South African Tour event the following morning.

After winning the Madrid Open on Sunday, to go with his US and Scottish Open titles, Goosen flew home to Sunninghill, Surrey, intent on finishing off the last two bottles of champagne left over from his wedding in April. Not just any old bottles but a couple of Methusalahs, each worth eight of the standard variety.

Goosen married his English bride Tracy at Leeds Castle in Kent and that the best season of his career should follow is probably not unrelated. They first dated eight years ago but Goosen was soon told the relationship would not last unless he changed his ways. A tendency to be withdrawn and introverted was all too often combined with the professional golfer's penchant for moaning about all those putts that got away.

Goosen cheered up and his first few professional titles followed but it was only after starting to work with the Belgian sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout in 1999 that the negativity rooted in his game was weeded out.

"I used to be so negative on the course," Goosen said. "I tended to drag too many bad things along. Over the last few years I've started to believe in myself more. Now I have more positive thoughts than negative ones."

Vanstiphout says that the Goosen who first came to see him would have been crushed by the putt he missed to win the US Open in regulation play. Instead, the South African returned the next day to defeat Mark Brooks in an 18-hole play-off.

Late wobbles have not been eradicated from his game entirely. He was beaten by Sergio Garcia after leading by four with four to play at the Lancome Trophy and bogeyed the last in Madrid before beating Steve Webster at the third extra hole.

Having wrapped up the Harry Vardon Trophy with two tournaments to spare, including next week's Volvo Masters in Jerez, Goosen is the first non-European to win the Order of Merit since Australian Greg Norman in 1982.

By winning the US Open, Goosen was the only European Tour member to win a major this season and only Tiger Woods, a non-member, has more victories on the Tour this year. Only Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and Vijay Singh can claim to be double champions, while Darren Clarke, who needed to win in Madrid to keep the money race interesting, and Garcia have only won once.

Garcia, after winning twice in the States and as this continent's highest placed performer on the world rankings, can claim to be the best European-born player of the moment. Goosen has now entered the world's top 10 for the first time. "I started the year 38th and my goal was maybe top 20," he said. "It's hard to believe how far I've come with so many good players around.

"To win my first major, and now be No 1 in Europe, is unbelievable. It's been a dream year and it's still got to sink in. This is my 10th season in Europe and it's hard to think I've been the best player this year."