PALM HARBOR, Fla. — No, you’re not having a flashback or watching a Golf Channel replay. Retief Goosen is on the Transitions Championship leaderboard, live and in person.
Your surprise is understandable. It’s been a while.
“Yeah, probably the last time I was in a media center was here in 2009,” Goosen joked, surprising the media with his quiet sense of humor. “A lot of you guys have aged a lot.”
There was more laughter. Goosen, 43, a two-time U.S. Open champion, has put on some years, too. He’s got a high-mileage back, which is why he has all but disappeared from leaderboards the last two years.
Maybe that’s why he was in such a good mood Saturday afternoon. His back has gotten so bad the last few weeks, he probably has no business playing this week, much less being in contention to win. Yet there he was, steering his ball around the Innisbrook Copperhead Course in a mere 65 strokes to finish at 11 under par.
How bad is his back? His left leg basically goes numb when he bends over, which means he doesn’t finish his swing very well because he can’t shift his weight to his left side. So he’s flaring some fades around the course and losing some distance—about one club with the irons, he said. He’s adjusted so far, but enough is enough.
He has already withdrawn from next week’s tournament at Bay Hill. That’s not a big deal, perhaps, unless you want to play the Masters. Goosen does. He stands 52nd in the world rankings and currently isn’t holding an invitation to Augusta. The top 50 after Bay Hill will get into the Masters. So this weekend, the Transitions Championship, is Goosen’s final shot.
Next week, he’ll go to Virginia Beach, Va., to take the same kind of cutting-edge protein injections in his back that Vijay Singh, Hank Kuehne and Fred Couples did. A top-10 finish at Transitions would likely move Goosen into the top 50 temporarily, but he probably needs a top-five finish or better to avoid getting bumped out next week when he doesn’t play Bay Hill.
The back, Goosen said, really became an issue the middle of last year, when he was forced to withdraw from the British Open and the PGA Championship. He worked with a therapist, who helped get Goosen up and playing again over the winter in South Africa, but now the back has taken a turn for the worse.
“We decided to call it a day,” said Goosen, who will have the injections on Wednesday. “So hopefully, I’ll be ready to get going again after the Masters—or maybe at the Masters if I play well tomorrow.”
The diagnosis is a degenerating disk that is bulging in two places. It takes 45 minutes of therapy in the fitness van for Goosen to get going, and even then, his first few shots on the range are dainty little chips, he said.
It’s remarkable that he’s in a position to win this tournament for a third time. He last won here in 2009.
“Luckily, you don’t have to bomb it off the tee here,” Goosen said. “There aren’t too many long holes. Quite a few 3-wood holes off the tee. I might be hitting a club more than most of the other guys, but it’s not a course that you have a big disadvantage if you don’t hit it long. My back was better yesterday than it was today, but that’s the way golf is. One day you make putts, the next day, you don’t.”
A hot putter carried The Goose, as he is known. He made 20-footers for birdie at Nos. 15 and 16 for a 32 on his closing nine. He sank a 25-footer on the sixth hole for birdie. Maybe, he’s hoping, he can limp into Augusta.
“This is my last chance, today and tomorrow, I’m fighting for that last spot in Augusta,” he said. “The thing is, I can’t practice. I came out here on Wednesday, about two o’clock. I hit a few balls at four o’clock and that was it. That is the most frustrating thing, I can’t go out and practice or get ready.
“Augusta and St. Andrews are my two favorite courses in the world. The Masters is not an event I want to miss. I’ve been playing there for quite a number of years now. I’m determined to keep it going.”
Asked how long the injection would last, Goosen misunderstood the question and laughed, answering, “Not too long, I hope. I don’t like needles.”
The injections, he hopes, will provide a semi-permanent solution to his back issues. He said Singh told him it takes about a week or two to take effect. So Goosen would have a two-week window of recovery, from next Wednesday’s injection day to Wednesday at the Masters … if he plays his way in Sunday.