PINEHURST, N.C. -- His final round complete, Ernie Els stopped long enough on his way out of the locker room to address the U.S. Open chances of his close friend, Retief Goosen. Els' day was done, but Goosen's was just beginning.
"I don't think there's any player better than him in U.S. Open conditions, Tiger included," said Els, as his courtesy car waited in the parking lot.
"But would you be surprised if he didn't win?" someone asked.
What? Goosen not win the Open? He began Sunday three shots ahead of Jason Who?, Olin Somebody and four shots ahead of the Pacific Rim contingent, Australia's Mark Hensby and New Zealand's Michael Campbell, who hadn't won since 2003, hadn't set Footjoy in this country all year, and hadn't received an automatic exemption to the Open; he had to work his way through a qualifier in London to even get here.
Els didn't hesitate.
"I'll be a little surprised because I think he's the most steady guy out there," Els said. "He's experienced and I think he wants to make some history today."
Goosen made it, especially if you like the history of car wrecks. After rounds of 68, 70 and 69, the surest thing since turkey on Thanksgiving shot a that-must-be-a-misprint 11-over-par 81. He went from Open champion-in-waiting to an 11th-place tie. Goosen's collapse was so complete that NBC all but ditched him down the stretch and concentrated instead on the surging Campbell and his pursuer, Tiger Woods. You could have aired "Facts of Life" reruns between Goosen's on-air appearances on the back nine.
On the list of, "Three Things You'll Never See Happen," Goosen's gag job would have ranked just behind Sister Mary Pamela Anderson, and Mike Tyson: 2005 Nobel Prize winner in quantum physics.
"I never would have guessed that Goose would have done what he did," said Woods, who finished two shots behind Campbell.
No one would have guessed it. Goose was Open money. He already had two of the USGA's fire hydrant-sized trophies, and had never shot higher than 73 in an Open after making the cut. Better yet, he never needed a Heimlich on Open Sundays. A day earlier Goosen volunteered that if he could shoot a 71 or 72. -- "I can probably win."
Instead, he shot his worst round -- and Goosen had to think about this -- since 1999, when he chunked around this very same Pinehurst No. 2 in 82 wretched strokes. Now this.
"I played rubbish at the end of the day," Goosen said. "There is nothing else to say."
Well, there is, and to Goosen's credit, he said it. He could have stiffed everyone -- as he did earlier in the week -- and made a beeline for the players' parking lot. But he took his place atop a small wooden interview stage just outside the clubhouse and detailed every miserable moment.
On his putting: "I just couldn't find a hole on the greens, and that was really the end of the story."
On the moment he knew he was Open toast: "Had a good drive on 11, pretty good second, missed a putt and hit in the rough on 12, had no chance, made bogey, and then it was just basically bleeding on the way home."
The round became so off-the-charts ridiculous that Goosen and Jason Gore, who also needed a tourniquet by round's end, made a bet during the last three holes. "And unfortunately, he messed up on the last one and I won the five bucks," said Goosen.
Gore, the obscure pro who defied every imaginable golf odd by playing in the final twosome, shot 84 and finished in a tie for 49th, which doesn't sound like much until you realize his $20,274 prize check nearly matches his 2005 winnings on the Nationwide Tour.
Olin Browne, who held the lead in this tournament for two rounds, shot 80 on Sunday. Luke Donald had an 80, Charles Howell an 81, Lee Westwood a 79. No. 2's greens were so difficult it was like landing a shot on the hood of a Volkswagen Bug.
"Take a look at the scoreboard," said Browne. "How many 80s were there today. It's a bloodbath out there, man."
One of those 80-ish scores belonged to Goosen, who proved that he isn't quite the golf cyborg we all thought he was. That's OK. Browne would later say that golf "teaches you to embrace failure." For Goosen, it taught him how to embrace life.
"This is nothing serious," he said. "Nobody has died, I think, or anything. I had a great Father's Day this morning with the kids. And the family is a lot more important than playing anyone out there."
So Goosen was disappointed, but not devastated. There's a difference. He lost a U.S. Open, but not his perspective. That has to count for something, right?
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.