Even after a major title, Louis Oosthuizen faces doubters and doubts

June 10, 2012

On many days of the year Louis Oosthuizen goes where cellphones don’t reach and golf clubs don’t matter. You may find him on his farm in Albertinia, South Africa, sitting atop his John Deere tractor with the earth shifting beneath him. Or you may not find him at all.

He is deep in the bush along the Orange River under proper stars, as Louis calls them, reconnecting with the 11-year-old he used to be, the one who would slip away from the farm in a pickup with a rifle and a goal: Bring back something for his parents, anything to show off his skill—pheasant at least, bushbuck on a really good hunt. “It’s nice meat,” he says.

Those who love Louis know he needs this time away from golf, this time “in the wild, making a big fire, just him and the boys,” says his wife, Nel-Mare. Those who love him know that the man with the most beautiful swing in golf will be at rest.

“Louis has three things in his life,” says his coach, Pete Cowen. “His family is first, his farm is second and his golf is third. When he goes back to his farm I always ask him, ‘Do a little exercise for just 15 minutes a day and when you come back you won’t be so rusty.’ ”

But when Louis is on the farm, he is on the farm. He comes back rusty. “It takes him about a week to get it back,” Cowen says.

When Louis is on, he makes magic. Weeks happen like the British Open at St. Andrews two years ago, when he hit three-quarter irons across the windy, ancient links, controlling his ball with such command that he won by seven strokes. Or at the Masters two months ago, when he made a double eagle from the 2nd fairway on Sunday and narrowly lost to the heroics of another golfing savant.

But Louis also has lulls in his game, stretches when his lovely swing becomes undone by a single fault.

“I struggle to get my game in a place where it stays there,” Louis said last month, in the players’ dining room at the Colonial. “Now and then I find a dip, which is not good. We’re working on things, swingwise. Mentally, I feel pretty much the same way I was feeling at the Open in 2010 or the Masters. I still go out there very confident. But I always find something in my swing that throws everything a little off. Pete says the good thing is that it’s always the same thing. But that’s also the bad thing about it. It always creeps back.”

The fault, Cowen explains, is that Louis’s lower body sometimes outraces the delivery of his arms to the ball and he can go wayward. In his first two PGA Tour starts after the Masters, he missed the cut at the Players and the HP Byron Nelson Championship. (Since then, he finished 19th at Colonial and missed the cut at Memorial.) On his way out of the Nelson, Louis bumped into Ernie Els in the shade of the scorer’s tent.

As a junior, Louis came through the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation, which provides schooling, mentoring and golf lessons for talented young South Africans of limited means. Els remains a mentor even as he is a competitor. (“His swing reminds me a little of myself,” Els says.)

What has Els seen from his protégé? What does he want for Louis’s career?

“He has to be mentally strong and have a purpose,” Els says. “When he is on, I don’t think many people in the world can beat him. But we don’t always see that from him. I’d like to see him get a little more fire up his a–.”

On the eve of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, with its tree-lined, bending fairways, the 29-year-old Oosthuizen should be on any short list of potential winners. (He tied for ninth at Congressional last year.) Over the past two years, no golf swing has been more quietly appreciated for its wonderful tempo and effortless power.

“If you were to compare it, it might be Sam Snead in the old days because of the rhythm,” says Butch Harmon.

“So natural, so free-flowing, so fantastically balanced,” says 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman.

“He has such fluidity, he looks great letting the club go,” adds John Senden, another Tour pro.

“He was almost a raw, uncut diamond when I got him,” says Cowen, who has worked with Oosthuizen since he turned professional in 2003. “He has a swing very similar to Rory McIlroy’s but probably a little more technically sound and very pleasing to the eye. He is almost hyper-mobile. It’s almost like watching a gymnast with elastic muscle, which is a lot more pleasing to look at than a muscle-bound gymnast would be.”

When Louis was 10, he swung a golf club for the first time, taking a swipe with an iron belonging to his older brother, Rikus. They were indoors on their father’s dairy farm and hitting tennis balls when Rikus came to a conclusion.

“We should get him a few clubs because he hits the ball every time,” Rikus told their father, Piet. “He never misses.”

Louis soon took up the game at Albertinia Golf Club, a nine-holer with sand greens so small that the longest putt you could have was a 15-footer. As with hunting, Louis was smitten with the challenge. He played off a handicap of 30.

“The thing I have never forgotten was the night my dad came to my room,” Louis says. “He opened the door and said, ‘You’re a 28 now.’ ”

He improved quickly, making the Southern Cape Province under-16 team when he was 12 and the under-18 team when he was 13. By 14 he played off scratch. Piet would drive Louis everywhere to compete, the full-time farmer and his barnstorming son taking to the road.

“He drove me to Johannesburg, a 14-hour trip,” Louis says. “He drove me all over the place to play in as many tournaments as I could. A lot of kids only play well at their club. I played all over the Southern Cape. My handicap was a bit higher than the rest of the guys, but I was on all of the golf courses. I was used to playing in different conditions.”

Through the grapevine, Els began to hear about a kid “playing in a dustbowl of a golf course and doing really well.” At 17, Louis applied to Els’s foundation and was accepted. It changed his life. The foundation removed the financial burden from his father, providing Louis with balls, clubs, clothes, travel and more.

“Once or twice a year we had a life skills week,” Louis says. “They even had a course where they taught us how to act in a five-star restaurant. The different forks.”

Early in his time at the foundation he played a round at a tournament with Johann Rupert, the South African billionaire, CEO of Richemont Group and chairman of the Sunshine tour. Rupert shot 77, Louis 79.

“I said, ‘Ernie, whatever you do, I don’t want to play with this kid,’ ” Rupert says. “Ernie said, ‘You’re wrong.’ Then the next two days he shot 63–64 and won the tournament.”

At 18, Louis joined friend and countryman Charl Schwartzel on the South African team that won the Junior World Championships in Japan. Soon, Louis and Charl were carrying the hopes of their nation in the professional ranks. In March 2010, after Els beat Charl by four strokes at the World Golf Championship at Doral, Els told Rupert that he still believed Louis would be South Africa’s next major winner. Rupert picked Charl.

Louis won at St. Andrews four months later, Charl the Masters the following spring.

The tight-knit South African golf community was devastated in April when Bubba Watson beat Louis in a playoff. The symbolism of Charl placing a green jacket on Louis’s shoulders would have been a goosebumps moment. It would have stirred anew the simmering pot that is South African golf. Rupert calls the loss among his greatest sadnesses in the game, along with Tom Watson’s narrow defeat at Turnberry in 2009, and he is not alone.

Charl had watched part of the final round at Augusta National on the television in the sitting room adjacent to the players’ locker room, along with Nel-Mare and other members of Louis’s family. Immelman watched in his Augusta rental house. Els sat through the coverage at his house in Jupiter, Fla., seeing his protégé come just as close to the green jacket as he has.

“He did everything right to win,” Els says. “Everything he needed.”

When the playoff ended, Nel-Mare found Louis, gave him a hug and let the silence envelop them.

“You don’t say anything for 10 minutes,” Nel-Mare says. “We went back to the room—and maybe this is a South African thing—but the way we get over things is by making jokes. That’s what we did. He was heartbroken, but what can you do?”

Nel-Mare’s favorite joke was one told by an Australian caddie a week later when Louis bounced back to win the Malaysian Open, for which the champion is awarded a navy blue jacket.

“Hey, Louis,” Nel-Mare says, repeating the caddie’s joke. “I hear blue is the new green.”

Louis seems like a good bet to win more majors, maybe in San Francisco, because the balance in his life is as good as the balance in his swing. Nel-Mare and their two daughters, Jana, 2, and Sophia, five months, travel the tours with Louis, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. (The family recently purchased a house in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., as a home base when Louis is in the U.S.) He has an epic British Open win and one of the most memorable near misses in Masters history. You will not find a happier person than Louis Oosthuizen.

Cowen says that Louis could be the best in the world if he had more desire. Els says he hopes to tell Louis that he must prepare for Olympic as if he has never done it before.

“Hopefully, I will have a word with him and make sure his game is set,” Els says.

What does Louis say about the contention that he needs to show a little more fire?

“I’ve never really been that into the game, to be honest with you,” he says. “Not saying I don’t want things, but I’m always scared of being too much into the game that I forget about all the other things that really matter. Family. Little things. Whenever I play, I want to win. I try to get my game right, and I have my goals set.”

And with that, Louis rises, heads to the Colonial range and digs them out of the dirt his own way. He never misses.