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Retief Goosen joins the golfing elite

Fortunately for Retief Goosen, the United States Open was a golf tournament, not an election.

Phil Mickelson was the people's choice at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, but Goosen won where it mattered most - on the course. After his two-stroke victory over Mickelson, Goosen must have felt like a boxer who won in the other guy's hometown. The loudest cheers were for Mickelson, who seemed more popular in the Hamptons than beachfront real estate. But the greatest satisfaction belonged to Goosen, who won the Open for the second time in four years.

Goosen may have kissed the trophy, but he should have kissed his putter. In one of the best final-round putting exhibitions in an Open, Goosen made 11 one-putts on greens that were countertop fast. To putt that well, on greens that fast, in a tournament with that much pressure, takes coolness. And few players are as cool as Goosen, who acts so calm you wonder if he could fall asleep standing up.

"I'm quite used to it by now, being the underdog," Goosen said after Sunday's victory. "It doesn't bother me. I knew Phil was coming at me, and I knew it was coming down to me and him. I felt a bit more relaxed in a way because I knew it was just me and him. Just play your game and just do it. And it turned out my way. I'm not really somebody that jumps up and down, as we know. But on the inside, I was just like so happy."

Winning his second major solidified Goosen's place among the top players in the world, and further illustrated the depth in golf. Goosen, who had won the 2001 United States Open at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., entered this tournament ranked ninth in the world.

But he was virtually ignored in discussions involving the pretournament favorites. All the usual suspects received more attention - Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Mickelson. Now Goosen has one more major than Mickelson has, and the same number Singh has.

Nine different players have won the last nine majors, starting with Woods's victory at the 2002 Open at Bethpage State Park's Black Course. Unfortunately for Woods, he had no idea that two years after winning at Bethpage, he would still be stuck on eight majors, without a victory in his last eight attempts.

It took Mickelson 44 attempts as a pro to win his first major, yet Woods has faced heavy criticism for his 0-for-8 run. After winning eight majors by age 26, Woods made almost everyone forget how difficult it is to win one. But that's life when you have set the standard Woods has set, and his streak without a victory in a major will continue until he hits fairways more consistently.

Woods has not been in contention on the back nine on a Sunday in the last three majors. That is more alarming than the fact that he has not been winning. Woods prides himself on his consistency, and the fewer majors he contends in, the fewer he can win.

How long it takes Woods to become a factor in majors again will be closely monitored, particularly with his former swing coach, Butch Harmon, joining the legion of Woods's critics. Harmon said on a British television station during the Open that Woods was working on the wrong things, and that he was in denial about his game. Woods was understandably angry, feeling betrayed by someone who was once a confidante.

Those who thought there was a chance that Harmon and Woods would reunite can stop waiting. Although Harmon is one of the game's most respected teachers, it seems farfetched to believe that a player with Woods's ability cannot win majors unless he is working with Harmon. The big picture for Woods still looks good because he remains on the pace set by Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 professional majors.

But for the first time in years, Woods has reached the midway point of the golf season being outplayed not by just one player, but several. Unless he rallies, he will not be the PGA Tour's player of the year for the first time since 1998, and Woods has only a few weeks to work out his current swing troubles before the British Open at Royal Troon in Scotland.

As for Mickelson, he said his loss was as deflating as his victory at the Masters was exhilarating. But imagine how deflated Mickelson would be now if he had not won at Augusta.

Since Mickelson finally got the major monkey off his back, many expect him to win multiple majors. But each major is a separate test. Being a two-time Open champion did not help Els on Sunday when he fell out of contention and shot 80. Being a two-time major champion did not help Singh when he shot 77-78 on the weekend. And winning at Augusta did not help Mickelson on No. 17, when he three-putted for a double bogey that cost him the tournament.

Winning a major is special for any player, no matter how good, or how obscure. And the latest player to know that feeling is Goosen.

"I'm immensely proud to be on this trophy," said Goosen, who moved up to No. 7 in the world ranking. "I was proud to be on it once, and to be on it twice is unbelievable."

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