There’s one true world golf championship. It’s played every five years, when the British Open comes to St. Andrews, as it did last week. In Sunday’s soft dusk, local kids lined the cozy lanes bordering the Old Course, cheering for various fresh-off-the-leader-board heroes from England and Ireland (northern division), from Sweden and Germany and Spain, from the U.S. and, right at the top, from South Africa. The World Cup, Part 2.
The claret jug was lifted that night by modest Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, winner by an immodest seven shots over Lee Westwood of England. (Jin Jeong, 20, of South Korea was the low amateur, finishing
14th.) Oosthuizen, 27, has a stylish, powerful swing, a pretty wife, a baby girl and a caddie fluent in three languages. Oosthuizen and his caddie, Zack Rasego, discussed club selection in Afrikaans, the South African language with Dutch lineage. They conducted their interviews in English. And when Rasego called home to speak to his wife, he used Tswana, a language spoken by three million black South Africans, Rasego among them.
Last week’s Open was more about symbols than anything else: the white South African golfer and the black South African caddie marching across Swilcan Bridge side by side. Summer 2010 has been a coming out party for the new South Africa. When the final putt was holed, Rasego, who counseled Oosthuizen on most of the 272 shots he played, reached out to give his boss an old-school handshake. Shrek (the golfer’s nickname, courtesy of the gap between his front teeth) turned it into a hug. The caddie, who has known poverty and apartheid, wasn’t fully ready for it.
Oosthuizen is full of surprises. In sporting terms, the biggest of them was that a golfer who had previously played in only eight majors, missing the cut in seven of them, could not only win in his ninth major start but also blow away the field.
And as soon as he was done, there was another surprise. In his acceptance speech, at the top of the thank-yous, before he mentioned his parents and his wife (Nel-Mare) and the fans, he gave a shout-out to Nelson Mandela, the former president who has devoted his life to ending apartheid in South Africa. Mandela’s 92nd birthday fell on British Open Sunday.
“Louis is not a political person,” Rasego said later. “I felt my spine running.”
The champion golfer of the year (the title is courtesy of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club) grew up in the rural southern South African town of Albertinia, where his father, Piet, has a dairy farm with 110 head. Piet was a good tennis player and so was Louis. But Louis, doing his own thing, found his way to the local nine-holer, with its sand-and-oil greens. If you want to groove a perfect stroke, learn to putt on sand greens. They’re slow (as are the greens at St. Andrews) but absolutely true.
“Louis was not very keen for milking, but he did like driving the tractors,” Piet said on Sunday. It was late afternoon, the cows were grazing, and Piet and his wife, Minnie, watched on TV as their son played in the British Open with a heady lead. Piet sounded like the picture of Afrikaner calm.
He was asked, “Are you glad Louis chose golf over tennis?”
“Up to now,” the father said, “it has been good.”
Another Afrikaner golfer, Ernie Els, who won the 2002 British Open, had an early interest in tennis. Were it not for the Ernie Els Foundation, which supports promising junior golfers in South Africa, Louis Oosthuizen might have learned to like milking a cow. He would have had to do something to make a living. He was done with school at 18. Louis thanks the Big Easy at every turn, in word and deed. Oosthuizen has started a junior golf academy at his home club in South Africa.
That club is called Mossel Bay, near Albertinia, a linksy, par-72 windswept course on the Indian Ocean. “I feel right at home here,” Louis said last week of the Old Course. It showed. He turned in rounds of 65, 67, 69 and 71. That adds up to 16 under par, in winds so strong that play had to be suspended for an hour on Friday. Tiger Woods has the Old Course scoring record for an Open, 19 under par in 2000, when it was weirdly calm for four straight days.
At Mossel Bay, Oosthuizen has shot 59 and 57. “The 59 was better,” the club’s manager, Bertu Nel, said on Sunday. “Tougher conditions. Word got out that he was shooting a low score, and 50 or 60 members came out to see him finish. He had to make a putt from off the green for 59, and he did. He has what we call BMT—big match temperament.”
He has an endearing humility too. “No one can actually say my surname,” Oosthuizen said last week. Spectators, he said, “don’t even know who I am.” His caddie is humble too. In the hours before the final round began, Rasego was helping another caddie wheel suitcases through the crowded, ancient streets of St. Andrews.
The player and the caddie have worked together since 2003, introduced by a black tour pro from South Africa, James Kamte. Kamte and Oosthuizen and other European tour pros were at the BMW International in Munich on the night that South Africa was playing France in the World Cup. “Louis said, ‘Let’s go watch the football,’ ” Kamte recalled on Sunday. “I was very moved. Rugby is the game of white South Africa. Football is the game of black South Africa.”
The world’s changing. Tiger Woods hasn’t won a major in more than two years now, and a player whose surname you cannot pronounce just won golf’s oldest championship by seven.
On Sunday night the winner’s caddie was asked, “Have you ever been to Mossel Bay?”
“Yes,” Rasego said. “For Louis’s wedding. My wife and I went for the wedding.”
Caddies and players don’t stay together forever, not usually. It’s what they do when they are together that matters.
“When he hugged me, that meant the world to me,” Rasego said on Sunday night. The golf was over, and kids and grown-ups were strolling all over the Old Course, the world’s greatest muni. “It meant he looked at me not just as a worker, but as a partner.”