LOS ANGELES – At its most elite level, golf is growing younger right before our eyes. The man who will chase the career grand slam in two months, Rory McIlroy, is just 25. Jason Day’s recent win vaulted him to fourth in the world at 27. Patrick Reed has a win this year at 24; so does Brooks Koepka. Jordan Spieth won twice late last year at 21. It’s almost enough to send seasoned veterans leaping into the nearest water hazard in hopes of finding a fountain of youth.
Retief Goosen, though, has always been a man of modest means. He isn’t greedy. He doesn’t pine for being an up-and-coming twenty-something once again.
“I wish I was 10 years younger,” the 46-year-old said with a wry smile.
That’s because he’s finally healthy – and so, too, is his game, as evidenced by scores of 66-70-69 that have given him a two-stroke advantage at the Northern Trust Open going into the final round.
A two-time U.S. Open champion and seven-time PGA Tour winner, it wasn’t so long ago that Goosen had neither the health nor the game to contend at this level. A back injury suffered some five years ago continued to linger. Injections didn’t help. On Aug. 24, 2012, he underwent surgery in London during which a titanium disc was inserted in his back. It was four months before he could even swing a club again.
“When I went in for surgery,” he recalled, “I was talking to my wife that I physically can't play golf anymore, so if surgery is not a success, I'm still in the same boat. So I'm very happy with the way that's turned out. It's now been pretty much almost 2½ years since surgery. My back's feeling great. I have zero back pain.
“The surgery has given me a second life, and hopefully I can continue to play on Tour for a few years to come.”
Call it his own version of the fountain of youth.
To further the metaphor, rather than make one big splash, he’s been mostly treading water until now.
“I feel great,” he beamed. “I mean, five years ago, the way my back was, I felt 46. And now I feel 36. I must say, my body's feeling good. I really can't complain what condition my body is in.”
He can’t complain about his performance so far this week, either.
The man famous for his major triumphs at Southern Hills and Shinnecock Hills is setting the pace on a course which hasn’t held a U.S. Open in 67 years, but feels like it is this week.
Goosen can see the parallels; he can understand how the experience of those long-ago wins could translate into success this week. But he also warns that we should remain wary of connecting the dots too linearly.
“Patience is a big, big key on a course like this,” he explained. “Yeah, I have the experience, but it's been quite a long time ago now, 14 and 11 years ago since I won a U.S. Open.”
That patience paid off on the back nine Saturday, in the form of a pair of big-time bounce-back birdies. After his first bogey of the day on the devilish 10th hole, he reached the par-5 11th in two and two-putted for birdie.
After bogeying three of his next four, Goosen found himself with an awkward stance just off the par-3 16th green, but stabbed at the ball, semi-buried in the rough, and popped it out to perfection, watching it disappear into the bottom of the cup.
“I felt I could get close,” he said. “I knew I couldn't leave it short unless I hit it in the rough in front of me. It just came out perfect and just went in perfect speed.”
The famously stoic South African barely cracked a smile, but that demeanor might help to explain his advantage so far this week.
Following the round, playing partner Graham DeLaet – who at two shots back will pair with him again on Sunday – marveled at Goosen’s ability to maintain such a calm disposition.
“He's a great guy to play with, especially under pressure circumstances, because you can just kind of look at him and see how cool and collected he is, with that just kind of silky smooth bomb that he hits off the tee,” said DeLaet. “He's a fun guy to watch play. I'm a little bit more of an emotional player than that, but I've learned over the years to not get too amped up or too down low. I think playing with him is a good way to just keep the calm and just go about business.”
Whatever happens on Sunday, Goosen will once again just go about his business.
It’s a business that, not so long ago, he thought he might be done with, the back injury keeping him from competing at a high level ever again.
When asked what he’d be doing if the surgery hadn’t been successful, Goosen pondered for a few seconds and smiled.
“I’d be sitting on a beach with a glass of wine,” he surmised.
By the end of Sunday’s final round, he could be lifting that glass to an unlikely victory toast instead.