GAINESVILLE, Va. — Professional golf is a young man’s game, no doubt about it. Just not every day.
Retief Goosen led a charge of shall we say “mature players” during the rain-delayed opening round of the Quicken Loans National here at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club. The Old Muskets kept up with the Young Guns in respectable fashion Thursday.
Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champion who is 46, shares the lead with Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa, 23, after the two players shot matching 63s.
Also featured high on the leaderboard are finely aged wines such as Justin Leonard, 43, who bogeyed his final hole after waiting out a 90-minute storm delay; Jason Bohn, 42; Jason Gore, 41; Mark Wilson, 40; and Chad Campbell, 41. Leonard and Kevin Chappell shot 64s in the morning wave. The afternoon wave pushed some of the oldsters down the board although 45-year-old Ernie Els cracked the top ten with an eagle on the par-5 14th.
“It’s nice of the youngsters to give the older guys a bit of a chance,” Goosen joked. “There’s a long way to go but some of the older guys played some Presidents Cups here and probably have a good feel for the place.”
Goosen had eight birdies and no bogeys on a day when scores figured to be low. Due to the heat and humidity this week, the greens had to be watered enough to make them receptive and they’re immaculate even though they have a lot of undulations. The fairways are just about perfect, too, and with afternoon storms in the forecast, the PGA Tour took the conservative route and allowed players to use lift, clean and place. It added up to a recipe for red numbers.
“The fairways are so good, even playing lift, clean and place you struggle to find a better lie,” Goosen said. “The greens are fast and they’re not too spinny despite being a little wet. The ball stops where it lands, which makes it easier to control.” Leonard, who was suddenly on with his iron game after a lackluster season, said, “The course is soft, and it’s there for us right now.”
Goosen won a pair of U.S. Opens in different fashions. He foozled a short putt on the 72nd green at Southern Hills in Tulsa that would’ve won him the 2001 Open, then played solidly in a Monday playoff and defeated Mark Brooks for the title. At Shinnecock Hills in 2004, he made a series of incredible par saves and putts on the closing nine to hold off a charge by crowd favorite Phil Mickelson.
At 46, he’s in that uncomfortable transition zone where he’s not close enough to 50 to be thinking about the Champions Tour, but it’s becoming ever more difficult to compete with the non-stop flow of young stars.
His ballstriking isn’t as sharp as it used to be ever since he recovered from back surgery three years ago. He ranks 169th in driving accuracy, 188th in greens hit in regulation and 87th in strokes gained putting.
“I still have the length, I can still get it out there 300 yards but I need to find more fairways,” Goosen said. “It’s a tough game from the rough. When I was playing my best, I was driving it well, hitting a lot of fairways and giving myself a chance to get it close. From the rough, you don’t. When is the last time I won out here—six years ago? I haven’t been playing great but today gives me a lot of confidence that I can still play out here. This is a good week to hopefully turn things around.”
When Goosen withdrew from the 2012 British Open due to back pain, he admits that he believed his career was over. “I was pretty much done,” he said. “I couldn’t walk, never mind hit a ball.”
The subsequent successful back surgery—major surgery, Goosen said, much more substantial than the micro-surgery that Tiger Woods had—turned his life around. He was happy to finally not have back pain and the fact that he was able to return to competitive golf was a pleasant surprise.
“I’m glad I’m still out here playing,” he joked. “I just wish I was ten years younger.”
Goosen had to advance through qualifying to get in the U.S. Open and the British Open. He missed the cut at Chambers Bay and played well at St. Andrews, shooting an opening 66. A poor stretch on the final 18 dropped him back to 20th. He made a joke about winning the U.S. Open, the major championship that doesn’t come with something resembling a lifetime exemption like the Masters, British Open and PGA do, and how he should’ve won some of the other majors so he wouldn’t have to qualify now.
Goosen, a South Africa native who has relocated to Florida and given up his European Tour membership because he no longer wants to travel that much, keeps busy outside of golf by being in the wine business, much like other pro golfers.
“There’s a big difference between owning a winery and just having a name on your label,” Goosen said. “There are only three players who have their own wineries—the rest have labels. They just put their names to whatever rubbish they can find. Me, Ernie Els and Greg Norman all have our own grapes and we know that what goes in our bottles is a good grape.”
Goosen called it “an expensive hobby.” Asked if he gets barefoot and crushes his own grapes, he laughed. “No, I pay people to do that,” he said. “My job is to promote it. If my wine is available in the area when I’m at a tournament, I try to do some kind of function at the club or with a distributor to try to get our name out there.”
You can find his product online at TheGooseWines.com. His winery is a small one about 350 miles north of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
“It’s the coolest climate vineyard in the country,” Goosen said. “We just launched in the States a year ago, and we’re only available in five states at the moment. I’m hoping to grow the brand here in the next few years.”
The winery is at high altitude on the northern slopes of South Africa’s Outeniqua Mountains.
“I’m waiting for the day when I break through, the wine gets established,” Goosen said. “We are slowly getting to breaking even now. It takes a while to establish a brand, you’re competing against millions of labels.”
In that sense, wine is like golf. There is always room at the top for something or someone superb, no matter how long he or it have been around. At 46, Goosen seems to be aging very nicely.