Support group – South African golfer Retief Goosen

Dave Kindred

The South African golfer Retief Goosen, winner of the 2001 United States Open, now can admit to being frightened.

In his situation, many a man has come down with the trembles. One minute more would change his life forever. He was 32 years old and hadn’t felt so discombobulated since he was a teenage kid zapped by lightning. “It was,” he says, “the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life.”

It was April 28, 2001, and Retief Goosen stood at the altar of a great stone church in the English market town of Tenterden, Kent. He heard a vicar’s voice resonating in St. Mildred’s Anglican Church, asking him to repeat vows of holy matrimony, beginning, “I, Retief Goosen, take thee,

Tracy Pottick, to my wedded wife . . .” and ending, ” . . . thereto I plight thee my troth.” Tracy Goosen says her man had been afraid he couldn’t follow the vicar’s lead because he was dead-scared he’d bumble the thees, plights and troths. She also quotes Retief as saying, after the ceremony, with an air of relief, assurance, and bravado never before a part of him, “If I can do this, I can do anything.”

Two months later, he did an easier thing.

He won the U.S. Open.

Bringing change to a “new” Retief

The marriage was confirmation of a new Retief Goosen, confident enough to go where he had never been, even down a road bumpy with thees, plights and troths.

Famous for never saying much, Goosen explained the silences by presenting himself as “shy, quiet, a loner.” In fact, for a long time he wasn’t comfortable with the English language; it’s his second language, Afrikaans his first.

More telling, the silences were covers for self-doubts as well as such repressed anger that a friend once spoke of “that little black thing” in him “that may have come from his youth, making him a very mean guy sometimes.”

With Tracy Pottick came a turning point in Goosen’s life that, in the way these things happen, also marked a change in the direction of his career.

Through the 1990s, Goosen’s promise exceeded his accomplishment. Graceful and elegant in his movements, smooth and strong with his swing, the man from Pietersburg, Northern Province, came to be called “South Africa’s second-best golfer.” The line damned with faint praise. Goosen (pronounced WHO-son) was rendered inconsequential by Ernie Els.

Eight months younger than Goosen, once his junior rival, Els is a two-time winner of the U.S. Open, winner of eight U.S. PGA Tour events and 24 others around the world, and a top-three finisher in all four major championships.

Before this season, Goosen won four PGA European Tour events, finished as high as 10th in only two majors (both British Opens), and never made it into the top 10 of an American event.

That distance between the contemporaries and friends was lengthened by the nature of Goosen’s personality. While Els is no quote machine, next to Goosen he is Trevino-esque. Some witnesses swear Goosen wears only shades of brown, the better to go unnoticed. His conversational style prompted a London journalist to invoke hell’s river of forgetfulness: “He can be so vague that you wonder if Pietersburg stands on the river Lethe.”

Even the first defining moment in Goosen’s life is indefinite. He was struck by lightning on a golf course at age 15, left unconscious, his clothes burned off, his shoes melted. Hospitalized for six days, he played golf two weeks later.

Argument comes about the lightning’s effect. His mother, Annetjie, has said, “Retief emerged from the hospital a much humbler and quieter person.” But Retief insists he’d always been quiet in a quiet game and that the lightning did no more than diminish his hearing in one ear and “teach me to stay out from under trees in lightning storms.”

As to another debate–why Goosen hasn’t matched Els–the explanation is Mickelson-Woods obvious: Some players are better than others. It’s also true that in the dark hours when doubt creeps in, Goosen’s concern was not about Els. He worried about himself, for he came to work uncertain he could do the work.

The youngest (by six years) of three brothers, Goosen learned the game from his father. Theo Goosen is an estate agent. He’s also a taskmaster of whom Retief says gently, “He does have a tendency to apply a bit of pressure.” The father says, “Look, I never made life easy for my kids. We never spoiled them. We never pleasurized them.”

Theo Goosen’s teaching aids included “a contraption I built to keep Retief’s head down.” As the boy hit balls at home, he took his stance with the contraption’s wooden arm touching his head, a reminder to keep still.

“Watch his head now,” the father says. “He has the steadiest head in golf.”

If his swing came out pure, his thinking didn’t. Uncertainty surfaced in many ways, all noted by the constant presence in his adult life, Tracy Pottick. They met in 1993 when, as owner of a promotions staffing company, she worked the Ryder Cup at The Belfry in England. She’d broken off a relationship and wanted nothing to do with any man. Then here came Retief Goosen.

A few weeks earlier at the English Open, he learned Tracy wasn’t seeing anyone. He was told that if he wanted to meet her, he should get on with it immediately. So he traveled to The Belfry, not for the golf but to ask a woman to dinner. “Twice I said no,” Tracy says, “but it turned out that Retief was the exact opposite of the man I’d split with, who’d been an enigmatic, business-oriented, Aryan-leader type. Retief was a real gentleman–and, happily, persistent.”

Soon enough, they lived together. And soon enough, the upbeat, optimistic, positive thinker Tracy Pottick recognized an attitude in Goosen that she believed undermined his career. “He’d be extremely negative, about himself, about the course, how ‘unfair’ this was, how ‘unfair’ that was,” she says. “He might have seen it as nagging, but I told him, ‘No matter what talent you have, you’ll get nowhere if you don’t change.’ “

She also knew she didn’t like living in the darkness of a man tortured by work. She says, “I told him if he didn’t change, we’d split.”

The Tracy Ultimatum worked. Instead of a negative word, he’d find a positive. Where once he punished himself for mistakes, he embraced memories that affirmed his talent.

“After three years, he’d made progress,” Tracy says. “Yet only in the last three years has he come to understand the most important thing in life: that what you give out is what you get back.”

Goosen concedes: “She struggled with me. I was a bit of a tough guy in the beginning. She’s changed a lot in me; I was just too serious. I try to enjoy life more now. She knew the potential was there, and I just didn’t believe it.”

Mental coach makes an impact, too

Enter Jos Vanstiphout. He’s a character and curiosity out of Belgium, once a pop singer, later a salesman, now a 50-year-old, self-described “mental coach” working the sports psychobabble field long ago plowed by his CaliforniaSpeak guru, Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Golf.

” ‘Shy’? That is not the right word for Retief,” Vanstiphout says. “I’ve met some of the world’s most beautiful women, and they still think they’re ugly. In the same way, everybody saw Retief’s ability–everybody except him. He didn’t believe. Something in him was saying, ‘No, no.’ Whatever that something was, it had to be removed.”

Earlier, Goosen might not have agreed to an ex-pop singer’s psychosurgery. Theo Goosen remembers his son once saying, “I don’t need a brain mechanic.” But that was before he heard The Tracy Ultimatum. Suddenly, Goosen needed Vanstiphout.

Goosen liked the little man’s work. “He got me to see the best out of every shot. Before, I’d drag a bad shot along the next two holes. Doubt creeps in. You think about the bad shots, then you can’t hit good shots, you can’t even feel good shots. I’m trying to forget the bad ones. It’s easy to say, but when you’re out there, it’s not easy to do. You have to totally believe in yourself.”

Vanstiphout’s “reprogramming of Retief’s subconscious” involves “achieving true relaxation through mental exercises, through hypnotism, through yoga, everything that can bring you as deep in relaxation as possible. You are away from the Earth and really inside yourself. Then you can pass through the right messages to the subconscious.”

Goosen’s take on the training: “We do our little things. It’s nothing serious. He doesn’t hypnotize me that I walk around in the room and don’t know what I’m doing. No hypnotism or anything like that is involved. Our little drills we do, it’s between him and me. But it’s nothing serious, like hypnotism or things like that.”

Now a great positive thinker

We’re at lunch. Goosen has the fruit plate with watermelon, cantaloupe, honey dew. At the mention of the best South African golfer ever, Gary Player, someone says, “Talk about positive thinkers. If Gary had that watermelon, he’d say it’s the best watermelon ever.”

“Right,” Goosen says. “I have never, ever heard Gary Player say anything negative.”

Goosen’s learning. Vanstiphout knew the night before that Goosen would win the Open playoff.

“After he lost the U.S. Open,” Vanstiphout says, “I went to his room that night and asked, ‘Can you tell me one positive thing about your last week?’ He said, ‘Now I know I can beat them all.’ That was huge. No chance had I ever heard those words from him before.”

In Pietersburg that Sunday night, Theo Goosen says, “I fell onto the carpet like a dead ox” when Retief missed that second putt on the 72nd hole. He recovered to watch the playoff and hear his son’s happy phone call the next night. “Only I was so emotional, I couldn’t speak. I just wept.”

“Being more known is a good feeling,” Goosen says. “It feels like you belong out there, like you’re not just filling out the field and wanting to do well, but now that you know you can play under pressure, you want to be up there come Sunday.”

Such a year for Retief Goosen. He proposes to Tracy at sunset atop a high hill in the Virgin Islands, marries her in an English countryside stonework church dating back to 1180, celebrates with a reception at the Leeds Castle home of six queens, and wins the U.S. Open.

“Life’s going pretty good,” Goosen says at lunch. Then, smiling, he spears a slice of watermelon, raises it for all to see, and says, “Good watermelon.”

COPYRIGHT 2001 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

You May Also Like

The best little golf town in America: we rank the best metro areas for golf—1 through 314

The best little golf town in America: we rank the best metro areas for golf—1 through 314 – Metro Golf Rankings Matthew Rudy WHAT …

These fundamentals govern golf’s starting position for your type of swing

Getting set: these fundamentals govern golf’s starting position for your type of swing One plane BALL POSITION The ball sho…

Greatness transcends eras – when hickory clubs were replaced with steel clubs; golfers who won competitions during the transition

Greatness transcends eras – when hickory clubs were replaced with steel clubs; golfers who won competitions during the transition – Brief Articl…

Classy coach confesses – coach Greg Rota notices scorecard error

Classy coach confesses – coach Greg Rota notices scorecard error – Brief Article His players were already celebrating when Westborough Hi…