PINEHURST, N.C. -- This might seem hard to believe, but Retief Goosen can get ruffled. Kids keeping him awake at night. Someone who cuts him off on the highway. The dog barking next door.
Put him under the most grueling pressure in golf at the U.S. Open, though, and he hardly blinks.
Unflappable as ever, Goosen looked simply unstoppable Saturday with three birdies over his final five holes, the last one a 25-footer from just off the 18th green that trickled into the cup on its last turn for a 1-under 69, leaving him the sole survivor of par at Pinehurst No. 2.
Better yet, the 35-year-old South African had a three-shot lead going into the final round, with the experience of two U.S. Open titles on his side and no one close behind with any major championship credentials.
"You always get a bit upset if you don't play well," Goosen conceded. "But I'm playing well, and my mindset is well around this course. So I'm looking forward to tomorrow."
With a stunning recovery from a rare lapse, Goosen was at 3-under 207 and poised to join Curtis Strange as the only back-to-back U.S. Open champions in the last 50 years.
He will be play in the final group today with Jason Gore, ranked No. 818 in the world, who showed some grit of his own with three nifty par saves and a 15-foot birdie on the last hole to salvage a 72.
Tied with Gore was Olin Browne, No. 300 in the world who only got into this U.S. Open by shooting 59 in qualifying after thinking about quitting halfway through. Browne, 46, made birdie on three of the par 3s and matched Goosen's terrific iron play down the stretch, but not his putting. He also shot 72.
"He's got to be one of the most underrated players of all time," Browne said.
Goosen certainly has the demeanor -- birdies and bogeys are met with the same, placid stare -- but no one can question he has the game for the toughest test in golf.
"That's what you need on a course like this -- no heartbeat and a great short game," Arron Oberholser said.
Michael Campbell (71) and Mark Hensby (72) were another stroke behind.
Only Goosen and U.S. Senior Open champion Peter Jacobsen managed to break par in dry, fiery conditions played under a blazing sun, which made the domed greens off limits to all but the most exquisite shots -- and Jacobsen needed a hole in one on No. 9 to do it.
Goosen had his share of troubles, making a mess of the 13th hole with a wedge that went over the green and a chip that went back down the fairway. But he recovered with spectacular shots, starting with a 6-iron out of a fairway bunker, fading slightly toward the middle of the green to 30 feet for birdie.
The big names -- and that includes some of the Big Five with which Goosen is only loosely associated -- face the toughest task of all. They need to make birdies on a course that doesn't allow many, or hope that Goosen comes tumbling back to par and beyond.
David Toms, who gave up five shots on his final two holes Friday, hit an approach shot that bumped into a bird on the 18th green, then made his 10-foot birdie for a 70 that put him at 2-over 212.
Tiger Woods couldn't hit the fairway with a 2-iron on two of the first three holes and made bogeys, but played even par the rest of the way for a 72 that left him in a group at 3-over 213. Woods has never won when trailing by more than five shots going into the last round on the PGA Tour, and he has never won a major when he wasn't at least tied for the lead after three rounds.
Vijay Singh failed to make birdie in his round of 74, leaving him at 214 and seven shots behind.
The only thing keeping the Goose from a third U.S. Open title in five years is Pinehurst No. 2, a course that can dole out punishment to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
"It is nice having a lead going into the last round," Goosen said. "If it was 12 shots, I'd probably be a little more comfortable, but it's going to be a hard day out there tomorrow. Anything can happen on this course. You can lose three shots very quickly around here."
Goosen lost them on two holes.
His tee shot on the 12th went right into a sandy area, landing just beyond a patch of wire grass. He missed the green to the left and took bogey. Then came the 378-yard 13th, the toughest hole in the third round.
From the left rough, his ball rolled over the crown of the green and left him a delicate chip. He misjudged the speed ever so slightly and watched the ball tumble off the front of the green and back down to the fairway. Goosen pitched up to about 10 feet and rimmed the cup for a double bogey.
Suddenly, no one was under par in the U.S. Open. And with a mean stretch of holes in front of him and the other leaders, it figured to only get worse. Goosen's next tee shot again sailed to the right and into a bunker.
One swing turned everything around.
From a downhill, sidehill lie in the bunker, he shaped a 6-iron from left-to-right to the middle of the green, an ideal spot even for someone in the middle of the fairway.
"It wasn't an easy shot," Goosen said. "It was one of those if I hit it fat, I was in the bunker in front of the green, and if I hit it thin, I would hit the bank in front. It came out perfect."
He followed that with a 6-iron into 15 feet on the par-3 15th hole for birdie. Goosen had good looks at birdie on the next two holes, lipping out from 10 feet on the 17th, before he sent a powerful message with his final birdie:
This is one cool customer.
"You're going to quickly make bogey, double bogey around this golf course if you hit the wrong shot at the wrong time," Goosen said. "I just tell myself it was one bad shot and it cost you. I was more determined after that to have a better finish, play solid and see if I could finish with one or two birdies.
"I got lucky, finished with three."
Gore was one of the few guys who left Pinehurst with a smile, and for good reason.
Beefy and lovable, he was greeted by cheers at every turn by a gallery charmed by his longshot bid in a third round when everyone expected him to collapse under the pressure.
He almost did, chopping up the 14th hole so badly that he had to two-putt from 20 feet for double bogey. He missed the 15th green to the left and saved par with an 8-footer, came up short on the 16th and saved par from 6 feet, then got up-and-down for par from behind the 17th green.
When his birdie putt fell on the final hole, he crouched and pointed to the hole, then raised his putter.
"Crazy stuff happens," he said. "I thought everybody was lying until today came around."
Can he actually beat the Goose?
"I'm in the final pairing," he said. "I've come this far. Who knows? If they invite me out on the 18th green and they hand me a large piece of silver, that will be pretty special."
Even so, the toughest challenger remains the course.
Goosen isn't ready to celebrate another U.S. Open just yet, although it would be hard to tell if he were.