ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Louis Oosthuizen never let the silver claret jug out of his sight as he celebrated into the morning hours at the Jigger Inn across from the 17th fairway at St. Andrews.
If his seven-shot victory in the British Open felt like a dream, reality arrived when he awoke Monday.
“I put it next to my bed last night, and I woke up this morning and I looked at it, and I immediately grabbed the phone and texted Chubby Chandler, my agent, saying, ‘I’ve got this funny old jug next to my bed,’ Oosthuizen said.
“Man, oh, man. That was special waking up next to it.”
Equally special was his victory at the home of golf, a performance so pure that he never trailed over the final 48 holes and only hit into one bunker on the Old Course, on the 14th hole Sunday when the championship had already been decided.
Oosthuizen became the fifth player in the last six Grand Slam events to win his first major, and the question sure to follow is whether he is capable of winning more or if he happened to play his best golf during an important week.
Until his conservative play on the 17th to make bogey, Oosthuizen was poised to tie the Open record over 72 holes with an eight-shot victory, last achieved by Tiger Woods a decade ago.
Seven shots is no less impressive. In the 150 years of major championships, only 14 players have won by seven shots or more (Woods has done three times, Jack Nicklaus twice). Of those players, only two of them – Fred Herd in the 1898 U.S. Open and Willie Smith in the 1899 U.S. Open – never won another major.
Where does Oosthuizen fit in?
“I think based on the margin of victory, his demeanor on the golf course, the quality of his game and steady progress that he’s been making in the world rankings and in tour events, I think very much mark him as a player on the rise,” Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson said Monday. “Every great Open champion has to win for the first time. And I for one would not be surprised to see him win again.”
That would be the plan for the 27-year-old South African.
In this age of players turning pro earlier and winning tour events immediately, from Ryo Ishikawa to Rory McIlroy to Anthony Kim, Oosthuizen might be a late bloomer.
Ernie Els noticed his skill immediately when he invited Oosthuizen to be part of his foundation, which helps promising juniors who need financial assistance. Oosthuizen wears “57” on his sleeve, the name of his own foundation, as a tribute to the score he shot on his home course of Mossel Bay along the Garden Route in South Africa.
“The wind blows so hard there that the sea gulls walk,” Chandler said.
Yet the self-belief was lacking until Oosthuizen won the Andalucia Open in Spain earlier this year, his first European Tour victory. And while he wouldn’t have predicted a victory in the British Open, he knew he was capable.
The key to his victory came in the second round. Oosthuizen began in the wind and rain, and he has never liked playing in wet weather. He managed to get through the rough part without dropping a shot, and wound up with a 67 just as the wind turned fierce.
He figures the seven years he spent on the European Tour toughened him up, and winning in Spain did nothing but boost his confidence.
“I want a few more of these,” he said, his eyes rarely wandering from the jug. “I think winning one just wants you to get to the second one, and winning a second one and then get to the third. Yeah, I’m going to work a bit harder probably from now on and just try and get up there with as many majors as I can.”
During a night of celebration at the Jigger Inn, he stepped outside into a garden and looked over the stone wall toward an empty Old Course, wanting to walk the links and soak in all he had accomplished.
Part of him still couldn’t believe what he had done.
While not well-known on a global stage, this victory was not as surprising as Ben Curtis winning in 2003 in his first major at No. 396 in the world, or Paul Lawrie winning at Carnoustie in 1999.
“I thought long before anybody had heard of him that he was going to be an exceptional player,” Els said. “He shot an absolutely stunning 57 at Mossel Bay, which will neither be equaled nor bettered. You have something special when you do that. Louis is now the Open champion. His life will change. He won’t.”
That was the message from Gary Player, South Africa’s greatest golf champion, who called Oosthuizen on Sunday morning for a pep talk. Player doesn’t know as much about Oosthuizen as he does other South African players, yet he won’t forget his last time playing the Masters, how Oosthuizen came out to the 18th green to watch him finish.
“He is so respectful,” Player said. “It’s very nice when you get a young man like this that has no sense of entitlement.”
Oosthuizen took that respect to a new level when it comes to golf’s oldest trophy. British Open champions keep the claret jug for a year, and usually return with stories of what all was poured out of it. Stewart Chink started with Guinness, and the rest of the liquid ranged from soda to wine to barbecue sauce.
For now, the jug is as clean as when Chink returned it.
“There was nothing in this,” Oosthuizen said. “To me, it’s too special. I just looked at it and held it in my arms all night.”