PALM HARBOR, Fla. - During his two-year tumble down the world rankings, Retief Goosen has faced problems with eye surgery and lost some distance off the tee. But the main culprit was his putting, and he even tried a belly putter last month in desperation.
Innisbrook, which had the toughest greens this side of a major, proved to be the perfect tonic.
"When greens get so crusty and fast, I just tend to be able to control my stroke better on these quicker putts," Goosen said after his one-shot victory in the Transitions Championship. "I think if I putted on greens like this all year long, I'll enjoy it."
He had a blast Sunday on the tough Copperhead Course at Innisbrook.
They call them "greens," although they showed patches of brown all weekend. They were firm and crispy, making it difficult to hold shots and even tougher to make putts.
They reminded Goosen of Shinnecock Hills in 2004, when he won the U.S. Open by one-putting the last six greens.
This performance wasn't that good, but it was good enough.
Goosen closed with a 1-under 70, making him the only player to break par all four days. But it was the 18th hole, where Goosen needed only two putts from 25 feet for the victory, that proved the most difficult.
He ran the first putt 5 feet by the hole, steadied himself, then made it for par.
"It was great to see that putt go in," Goosen said. "The greens got scary. Down those last few holes, they were definitely getting like Shinnecock was. You just cannot hit them soft enough. It was really tough."
Charles Howell III (69) and Brett Quigley (68), who each finished one shot behind, had similar birdie putts in the groups before Goosen. Both ran them well past the cup and had to sweat for par.
"You're in the back of the tub trying to stop it short of the drain," Quigley said describing the putt they all had.
For a moment, Goosen must have had flashbacks to his other U.S. Open victory, in 2001 at Southern Hills. He had two putts from 12 feet for his first major, but three-putted to force a Monday playoff, which he won over Mark Brooks.
"It was disappointing to hit it that far past. I didn't want to have another U.S. Open there," Goosen said. "I felt good with my putting, and there wasn't too much indecision with the one coming back. It was nice to see it go in."
Howell, an Augusta, Ga., native who needs a victory to get into the Masters, was on the practice range in case of a playoff when he heard that Goosen had run his first putt 5 feet by the hole. That might have been good news had it been anyone else but Goosen.
"That guy, you're never going to bet against him to miss that," Howell said. "You don't win two U.S. Opens by missing those."
Those two majors seem like forever ago.
Goosen was among the "Big Three" in the world ranking just three years ago, a factor at every major and regarded among the elite. But he began to struggle with a few loose shots off the tee, and he lost confidence in his putting.
With his 40th birthday approaching - Goosen celebrated that in February by going to bed at 9 p.m. in San Diego - he decided it was time to get in better shape.
"Instead of getting totally out of shape and struggling, I thought I might as well be fit and struggling," he said. "I'd rather feel better about myself. I worked hard this December. I didn't have much of a holiday. My whole game started getting a little better."
He won in Asia and South Africa, but this was a breakthrough. Goosen last won on the PGA Tour in August 2005 at the now-defunct International in Colorado. Now, he believes he can get back to where he was.
"I keep reminding myself, Vijay (Singh) started playing his best golf when he turned 40," Goosen said. "I'm looking forward to the next five years."
Tom Lehman turned 50 two weeks ago and was trying to become the seventh player in his 50s to win on the PGA Tour. He went into the final round with a one-shot lead, lost it with a bogey on the second hole and didn't make birdie until a 40-footer on the 17th. Lehman closed with a 75 and tied for eighth.
That led to a revolving door of challengers, and five players had at least a share of the lead at some point Sunday.
Instead of charging, most of them retreated.
Steve Stricker rallied from a four-shot deficit to tie for the lead, but he couldn't sustain it. After two solid par saves, he flew the green from a bunker on the par-3 17th for bogey, then missed the green from the middle of the 18th fairway and made another bogey. He closed with a 69 and tied for fourth.
It was the third time this year Stricker had the lead on the back nine and failed to win.
Charlie Wi chipped in twice on the front nine and made the turn with the outright lead, reaching 9 under until he was undone on the par 3s. He shot a 69 and tied for fourth with Stricker and Mathew Goggin (67).
And then there was Howell, tied for the lead at 9 under. He missed the green to the right on the 15th and had to scramble for bogey, then missed the 16th green and dropped another shot.
"You ride on such a thin line on a track like this, where you just know every bogey hurts more than most, because you know it's so much harder to make up," Howell said.
Goosen made six par putts from at least 5 feet.
Just like old times.