GOLFING history is littered with examples of players freezing when the heat has been turned up the most.

From Doug Sanders' infamous missed putt to hand the 1970 Open title to Jack Nicklaus to Greg Norman's spectacular capitulation at the 1996 US Masters, some of the sport's biggest names have crumbled with the winning post in sight.

In 2001, Retief Goosen came perilously close to adding his name to the list. Walking on to the 18th green on the final day of the US Open, the South African, who was just ten feet away from the hole, was left with two putts for the title.

There were niggling doubts when he pushed his first effort past the hole but, with no more than 18 inches to come back, surely nothing could go wrong.

Or could it? With the simplest of tap-ins for the title, Goosen froze and nervously jabbed his putt past the cup.

The miss would have broken most golfers but, when Goosen lined up with fellow outsider Mark Brooks for an 18-hole play-off the following day, he duly claimed victory by two shots.

How could someone whose nerves had been shot return so authoritatively just 24 hours later? Perhaps it was because the 36-year-old knows all about freezing on the golf course. Perhaps it was because a previous lack of motion had almost had far more drastic consequences.

In 1986, a teenage Goosen had been playing a practice round in his native South Africa when a lightning bolt hit him, ripped off his clothes, melted his clubs and left him lying on the ground.

It was weeks before he could get socks or shoes on to his charred feet but, with the same belligerence that has come to characterise his professional career, he was back on the golf course as soon as he could walk.

The experience unquestionably changed him. The bold, brash teenager was changed into an introverted, reflective man. The irrational youngster who took defeat like a knife through the heart became a rounded thinker able to take the rough with the smooth.

"It taught me to stay out from under trees in lightning storms," saidd Goosen, who remains uncomfortable talking in public about his life-changing experience.

Yet, much as he seeks to downplay the significance of the event, he has kept his charred clubs as a gruesome reminder of that life-changing day. "I know what they are and I know what they mean," he tellingly added.

When your life has been put at risk in such dramatic fashion, it is hard to see other events in quite the same light.

So, despite his sustained success since his breakthrough US Open win in 2001, Goosen remains the quiet man of world golf. Given that he has the likes of Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson to compete with for the title, that is saying something.

European fans sat up and took note when he became the first non-European for 20 years to win the Volvo Order of Merit, as the top money-earner on the European tour, in 2002. Yet still he remained something of an unknown.

Even last year's US Open win at Shinnecock Hills, in which he battled against a gale-force wind to claim his second Major by two shots, failed to elevate him into the golfing stratosphere currently dominated by the 'Big Four' - Mickelson, Singh, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods.

"Being classed as a celebrity feels strange to me," admitted Goosen, whose early reticence was at least partly due to Afrikaans, rather than English, being his native tongue. "I class myself as a golfer who has won a Major, not a celebrity."

He might not be able to make that claim for long. Should Goosen triumph at Pinehurst in the next four days, he would become only the fifth player to have won three US Opens.

And, while he has been scratching around for form in recent weeks, if any course is likely to bring him back to his best, it is that unforgiving arena.

When the US Open was last staged at Pinehurst, in 1999, the eventual winner, Payne Stewart, was the only player to break par.

Els missed the cut, John Daly went 81-83 over the final two days and the uniquely upturned greens so infuriated Jose Maria Olazabal that he broke his hand in a fit of rage following an opening-round 75.

To win at Pinehurst, you've got to drive straight, get up and down from some horrific positions off the green, hole every putt going and, perhaps most crucially, keep your cool. All traits at which Goosen excels.

"I'm usually at my best when the course is really tough," he admitted.

"For me, the more you have to start grinding it out, the better it is."

Goosen's chances are enhanced by the current malady afflicting each member of golf's 'Big Four'.

Woods missed his first cut in 142 starts this month and looks far too erratic off the tee to take full advantage of his magical short game.

Mickelson has suffered from his characteristic inconsistency throughout the first half of the year, while both Els and Singh collapsed in last week's warm-up event, the Booz Allen Classic.

That tournament was won by Spaniard Sergio Garcia, who is likely to lead the European charge over the next four days. With Irishman Darren Clarke missing the competition for personal reasons, the leading Britain is likely to be the ever-improving Luke Donald, who showed impressive maturity to carve out a third-place finish at the US Masters this year.

The former US college student possesses the all-round game and requisite mental toughness to succeed this week but remains prone to the odd error when the going gets tough in rounds three and four.

Still, as Goosen has proved, the occasional freeze on the golf course is not necessarily a pre-cursor to failure.

Every now and then, it can herald success instead.