The U.S. Golf Association tries to set up a U.S. Open course every year that will "identify the best golfer" in the world. Instead, year after year, they set up a course that identifies Retief Goosen.

At the midpoint of the 105th Open, the imperturbable South African is tied for the lead and is halfway to winning this event for the third time in five years, a feat that would put him in exalted company with Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones.

Either Goosen is a whole lot better than most people think, or the USGA needs to do a lot more thinking about what constitutes a great test of golf. Most likely, it's quite a bit of both.

To give credit where it's due, Goosen is certainly the most underappreciated player in his sport. He's mentioned grudgingly, like a kind of unneeded fifth wheel in the sport's current glamorous Big Five.

"There are times that I feel like, yeah, I've won a couple of U.S. Opens and there's not a picture of you anywhere or nothing has been mentioned," a testy Goosen said recently, at least showing a pulse. "In a way, it makes you more determined to try and win another one and see what happens next time you come back, if there's a picture somewhere.

"I don't know what the guys want me to do. Do they want me to do handstands when I make a putt?"

Goosen, the most genial of placid nice guys, is stung by all the wisecracks about him that amuse others. Actually, everybody in the sport wishes Goosen was able to transmit an iota of his personal flavor, whatever it may be, or just show some sense of a good yarn, a quality that is almost universal in his game. No sport has a more vivid, sarcastic patois than golf. Like baseball, golf has tons of dead time and a tradition of storytelling to fill those hours. But Goosen is tone deaf to it. So, he's constantly at a PR disadvantage to any other player who opens his mouth.

For example, take Jason Gore, who is tied with Goosen and Olin Browne at 2 under par. A USGA official asked him if he "expected to find yourself here after two rounds." The burly Nationwide Tour journeyman, who is as close to an utter unknown as could be unearthed, said, "Starting me off with a trick question already?"

Asked to describe his U.S. Open experience, Gore said: "Either you can drop four bombs [long putts] or you can four-bomb it [four-putt], then drop four-letter bombs walking off the green. Somebody asked me how I four-putted. I used [Seve Ballestero's] line, 'I missed, I missed, I missed, I made.' "

Finally -- take notes, Retief -- Gore was asked what his "thought process" was entering the Open.

"It was actually to get a new stereo for my car and buy my wife some clothes. . . . Our car got broken into Sunday night and had everything ransacked. It was in Asheville at about 1:30 a.m. . . . They took my stereo, took my computer," said the 235-pound Gore. "But they [also] took all my underwear, those poor guys. . . . He who laughs last, right?"

We can be certain Gore will not win the Open because the USGA has spent more than a century refining "course preparation" so that no one with that much personality can possibly win. Lee Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller scared the USGA to death a generation ago. So, by now, they've got that "Identify the Flatliner" technique down pat.

Since 1974, the list of U.S. Open champions who gained almost all their notoriety from this one event is alarmingly long. And that's not a compliment to the USGA. Hale Irwin won three Opens, but no other majors. Andy North, Lee Janzen and Goosen have each won twice, but would be little noted on the basis of all their other accomplishments. Lou Graham and David Graham have won as well as Larry Nelson and somnambulistic Scott Simpson, who stayed in contention every year for eternity. Corey Pavin, Steve Jones, Jerry Pate, Hubert Green and Jim Furyk also won their only majors at the U.S. Open.

Quite a group of "greatest golfers in the world." Makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up with excitement to read that list, doesn't it? When nearly two-thirds of your champions in a 30-year period can barely fog a mirror, maybe you're really identifying the most desensitized golfer.

Already this week, emotion-on-his-sleeve Phil Mickelson has blown up with a 77 and is out of the hunt. Even those who have stayed in contention have barely kept their sanity. In the second round after missing a 10-foot par putt, Tiger Woods (three shots out of the lead) violently dragged his putter across the green in anger. This shocking outburst left a three-foot sequence of marks in the green, perhaps a dozen of them, all at least an inch long and cutting through the grass down to the dirt. Woods then swiped his putter backhanded across the damage he had done, perhaps "repairing" half of the marks.

If he'd been playing on a public course and pulled such a stunt, he'd probably have had a visit on the next tee from the four very angry golfers playing behind him.

Pinehurst No. 2, or Pinedust if you have allergies, is an idiosyncratic course perfectly suited to USGA sadism. Of its 18 greens, 17 are shaped like coffee saucers turned upside down. Only a perfectly stuck shot or a lucky one will stay on the green. Everything else siphons 10 yards or more off the green into collection areas. As a result, the event becomes a short-game chipping and putting contest.

Unfortunately, many of the collection areas are currently in muni-course condition because of a tough winter.

"Unfortunately, the winter wasn't all that great to some of the [shaved chipping] areas," Goosen said. "Some of the banks aren't quite as good as they would like to be. They are very inconsistent. Some have a lot of grass, some don't. Like number four . . . it's pretty much just sand."

Last year at Shinnecock Hills, the USGA lost the greens on Sunday and made the final day a national farce. Now, they are on the verge of losing everything around the greens. Maybe next year they can find an entirely dead course.

All is not lost. The weekend may well bring thrills, as well as the usual four-putt disasters and assorted Open indignities. Woods, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh are in the center of the leader board. And then there is Browne, who, with his 59 last week at Woodmont to qualify for this Open, would be perhaps the most amazing long-shot winner in the event's history.

"I got no fingernails left. I was hanging all day long," said the 46-year-old Browne, imitating someone hanging from a high ledge by his fingertips. "This course demands patience and discipline -- two things I lack, by the way.

"But you never know what could happen. . . . Jack Nicklaus said: 'The Open chooses you. You don't choose the Open.' I know it's going to be nasty and brutal. The Open synthesizes every distraction and this course will knock your [butt] over tea kettle."

Alas, that doesn't sound like a U.S. Open winner. He's got a pulse.

Phil Mickelson, above, has been left in the dust on the leader board after hacking his way to a second-round 77.