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Retief Goosen takes the lead at Pebble Beach with a 64.

Two-time U.S. Open champion claims to be fitter than ever at 40. Dustin Johnson is second, two shots back.

February 14, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

PEBBLE BEACH — In a matter potentially chilling for golf junkies, Retief Goosen has turned 40 and donned sunglasses and commandeered a belly putter.

It's pretty weird, but in reassuring news, he remains the same old pulseless artisan who might just shoot a 64 at some hallowed ground with 18 holes in it, as occurred Friday at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Playing rabbit to the leaderboard masses in reaching 12 under par and leading by two over the 24-year-old bomber Dustin Johnson, Goosen relocated his greater putting days such as that second U.S. Open title in 2004, the one when the world's best golfers bewailed the brown greens of Shinnecock Hills while Goosen placidly required nine putts across the last eight holes.

On Friday on Pebble Beach, he took 24 in 18, and on No. 5, he took zero, remedying a crummy tee shot by chipping in to remake a bogey into a birdie.

So it's sensible this South African 40-year-old virgin at the AT&T -- he did finish 12th in the Tiger Woods Invitational U.S. Open of 2000 -- would summon the name of a patron saint of 40-dom.

"Vijay started playing his best golf when he was turning 40, so hopefully you keep that in the back of your mind," Goosen said.

"Vijay" meant "Singh," a Fijian vision that can stem the kind of depression that apparently flared in Goosen on Feb. 3, his birthday, and lest you envy men who roam the world playing golf for riches, get a load of Goosen's 40th.

"I didn't celebrate at all, really," he said. "I just went out into the hotel restaurant with my coach and my caddie, Mark, and we had a nice meal and went to bed at about 9."

Nobody would expect Goosen to wake the hotel-room neighbors in bacchanalia, but the hotel restaurant and bed at about 9 . . .

"Unfortunately my family is in London, and it's a long month out here without seeing them, seeing the kids not for a month and my wife, it's pretty hard," he said.

It also went largely unnoticed when Goosen stayed south of Torrey Pines radar and finished 26th, then began this three-course event on Poppy Hills on Thursday with a 68, a score matched or bettered by seemingly half the tourists here.

Then at midday Friday, Johnson floated atop the board at 12-under-par but then hooked into the jungle on No. 17 at Spyglass Hill and, being young and all, thought he could spot the flag through that little sliver of trees. One dented tree and one double bogey later, he settled at nine under but stayed all Goosen-like and reckoned, "I've gotten mad before on the golf course. It doesn't help anything. It really doesn't."

He played one under the rest of the way and is two shots ahead of Mike Weir, Mark Calcavecchia, first-round leader Robert Garrigus and the lately scalding Charley Hoffman.

Yet as the pros and amateurs and Bill Murray played wet, wet grounds from early-morning rain that surprisingly skipped town for the duration, here came Goosen.

If he has seemed to disappear, he has not. Since almost hogging a third U.S. Open title in 2005 before an inexplicable 81 on Sunday at Pinehurst, he has been swell in majors, finishing top-three in three of the last four Masters and hiking his top-10 finishes to an outstanding 11. He last won on the PGA Tour in 2005 in Denver but won in Qatar in 2007 and Malaysia in November 2008 and South Africa in January 2009.

It's just that his putting waned and his body waxed, enough that last winter he noticed the mirror berating him by revealing what he called "all that (pause) bad." Across ensuing months, he prioritized fitness so that he walks hilly courses with aplomb.

And then, even with the two recent off-Broadway wins, he became roughly the 100,000th golfer to find a new putter by supposedly rummaging around his garage. "If you can get some sort of confidence going again, just seeing yourself making some putts, helps," he said, and he made 40 sound downright hopeful.


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