ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — There have been easier names engraved on the claret jug, but if Louis Oosthuizen doesn’t yet roll off the tongue, give it time. In the centuries of golfers making pilgrimages to these links, few have taken a journey so unlikely and turned it into a victory so dominant.
The name atop the Old Course’s yellow scoreboards on Sunday evening belonged to a 27-year-old from a dairy farm, a player whose first steps in golf occurred during a renaissance in his native South Africa more than a decade ago. As a teenager, Louis Oosthuizen joined the Ernie Els Foundation, became a prized pupil with a hot temper, turned professional, and fell into the role of unfulfilled talent.
“We’ve known for a long time how good he is,” said Graeme McDowell, this year’s United States Open champion. “He’s just been one of these guys that seems to underachieve somehow.”
On the final day of the 139th British Open, Oosthuizen went from underachiever to overachiever, winning the claret jug at St. Andrews by seven shots over England’s Lee Westwood. It was his first major championship and among the most unexpected routs in recent memory, a trouncing more likely to come from the bag of Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. Oosthuizen entered the championship ranked 54th in the world. He’d made just one cut in eight majors. In a poll of likely South Africans to win this week, Oosthuizen might have finished behind Gary Player, who didn’t even play.
All week, Oosthuizen peppered fairways through wind gusts and sank putts over heaving greens. While others waited for Oosthuizen to wilt, he weaved together a tapestry of ball-striking. His four-day total of 16-under-par 272, built on rounds of 65-67-69-71, looked as worry-free as golf can be.
“It was just a matter of growing up, really,” Oosthuizen said, reflecting on the tempestuous player he once was. “I think any youngster that’s playing that makes stupid mistakes on the golf course, it frustrates you. If you look at the older guys on Tour who have all that experience, when they make bogey or double bogey they just go on the next hole. I thought to myself, the quicker I can get around that, the quicker I’m going to win tournaments here.”
Oosthuizen quietly won his first European Tour event in Andalucia in March, but there was no other indication that he was ready to accomplish what he did this week.
The bigger his lead, the more comfortable he appeared. Two hours before his tee time, he was spotted on a street in St. Andrews, already dressed in golfing garb (white pants, olive shirt) and holding his baby daughter, Jana.
Player, South Africa’s greatest golfing champion, had called him earlier in the day, reminding him to stay calm. Player also told him the story of winning his first Masters in 1961, while the gallery was rooting for Arnold Palmer.
“He said, ‘They wanted to throw stuff at me,'” Oosthuizen said. “But he was so focused on beating [Palmer] at Augusta. It meant a lot, him phoning me up.”
When Oosthuizen arrived at the golf course Sunday, he looked loose as he chatted on the putting green with England’s Paul Casey, who trailed Oosthuizen by four shots and who held the dreams of British golf fans in his hands. Casey got no closer than three and saw his bid to pressure Oosthuizen die with a triple-bogey 7 on the 12th hole. All Oosthuizen needed to do from there was remain upright to join a roster of Open winners at St. Andrews that is as elite as any in golf — Jones, Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Faldo , Woods.
“It would be difficult to find anybody in the world who is more proud of him right now,” Els said. “He comes from a little town on the outskirts of George in South Africa and needed help, so we took him into the foundation and educated him. I thought long before anybody had heard of him that he was going to be an exceptional player. His life will change. He won’t.”
What was a masterful week for Oosthuizen was a forgettable one for the games biggest stars, Mickelson and Woods. Mickelson finished one over, tied for 48th, and shot 41 on his back nine Sunday.
Woods shot 72 on Sunday to finish three under, tied for 23rd. He began the week by sticking a new Nike putter in his bag, only to take 99 putts over the first three days before returning to his trusty Scotty Cameron for the final round.
The flip-flop made him seem an uncertain golfer on unsteady legs. A year ago, he was a heavy favorite to sweep the 2010 Opens at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, where he won by a combined 23 shots in the summer of 2000. Since those dominating performances, Woods has had his knee cut open and his life torn apart by scandal. He remains the best golfer in the world in ranking only, with nine majors having passed without him lifting a trophy.
“I’m driving it better than I have in years, but I’m just not making the putts,” Woods said. “It’s ironic that as soon as I start driving it on a string, I miss everything. Maybe I should go back to spraying it all over the lot and make everything.”
Or he could adopt the Oosthuizen model — drive it on a rope and make everything you look at. That’s what happened during a windy week at the home of golf, where Oosthuizen kissed the claret jug, wished Nelson Mandela a happy birthday and etched his name among the greats.
It might be a tough name to say, but it won’t ever be forgotten.