ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – They will say an ogre won an ugly Open Championship, but that woefully misses the point and wildly underestimates the performance.
This wasn’t the wrong ending, or the wrong player. This was not Stewart Cink, who gutted the crowds and the history books last year at Turnberry, or Paul Lawrie, who did an end-around at Carnoustie in 1999.
This was a masterpiece masked by unfamiliarity at a place as familiar as the claret jug itself. Not even the dulcet tones of Ivor Robson, the venerable first-tee announcer with his signature sing-song cadence, could harmonize Louis Oosthuizen’s name. But then this tour de force needed no window dressing.
For four windswept days the South African was machine-like, clinical, cutthroat, even, not that it’s possible to dismiss the man with the toothy grin as anything even approaching a villain. The man his friends affectionately call Shrek was every bit the loveable antagonist.
If St. Andrews is not big on dog winners – what with a list of past champions that includes the likes of Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Bobby Jones – then consider Oosthuizen an aberration, or a prologue. If Oosthuizen isn’t exactly Hall of Fame stuff just yet, his play certainly was.
For the week Oosthuizen was third in putting average (1.676), 12th in greens in regulation (83 percent) and first in driving accuracy (87 percent), a filthy statistic considering the demanding conditions, and posted four sub-par rounds (65-67-69-71) for a 16-under 272 total.
In short, the performance was marquee in every measure save for name.
“That was a frustrating day. I played pretty solidly most of the day and got some bad breaks,” said Paul Casey, who began the final round four strokes back and finished eight adrift. “Having said that even if you take away my mistakes it was never going to be enough to get near Louis. He played in a different league.”
Oosthuizen (pronounced WUHST’-hy-zen) hit fairways, greens and not a single rushed shot. We’ve seen this schtick before when it was called Retief Goosen, the original Grand Slam flat-liner.
What Oosthuizen lacks in Q rating he more than made up for with quality.
“He’s a proper player, isn’t he?” said Chubby Chandler, Oosthuizen’s manger with International Sports Management. “He’s unbelievably calm. Lee (Westwood) gets calm, but this is something else.”
When Woods won here in 2000 by eight shots he didn’t hit into one of the Old Course’s menacing pot bunkers. Oosthuizen was only one off that pace, lapping the field by seven shots without finding a single bunker.
“To play St. Andrews and not hit in one fairway bunker is unbelievable,” said Zack Rasego, Oosthuizen’s caddie of seven years. “That’s a key for here.”
Many figured Sunday’s action to be a two-man race. That was overly optimistic, which worked out well for the Royal & Ancient engraver who may have ran out of his allotment of vowels etching Oosthuizen’s name onto the claret jug.
After trading pars with Oosthuizen through five holes, a zero-sum game considering the South African’s 54-hole cushion, Casey rolled in a 4 footer at the sixth for birdie and closed to within three strokes after the front-runner bogeyed the eighth, his first misstep in 24 holes.
Oosthuizen answered with a 40-footer for eagle at the ninth and the match went virtually dormie at the 12th hole when Casey’s tee shot sailed into a gorse bush and Oosthuizen made birdie – an 8-and-6 walkover that made the inward loop a formality. Not that the 27-year-old whose real name, Lodewicus Theodorus for those looking to buy a vowel, is an announcer’s nightmare had any interest in premature celebrations.
Even with a touchdown cushion and major championship golf’s most-welcoming closer, it wasn’t until Oosthuizen hit his tee shot onto the green at the last that he exhaled.
“When my tee shot was done at 18 that was it. I definitely wasn’t going to 10-putt,” smiled Oosthuizen, who followed Tony Lema’s lead, the last little-known St. Andrews Open champion, and treated the media to a champagne celebration after his victory.
There had been little to suggest there was such a performance stirring within Oosthuizen. He’d missed the cut in three previous Open Championships and had not made it to the weekend in seven of the eight majors he’s played.
But his victory earlier this year on the European Tour was an espresso shot to his confidence, his swing was smooth and flawless when he arrived at St. Andrews and with a lifetime of playing golf in the wind near Cape Town the cosmic tumblers were long ago set in motion, even if the rest of us had turned a blind eye.
Even more impressive than his ball-striking clinic was the way in which Oosthuizen handled, or was it dismissed, the pressures of major championship golf. Before he teed off for the final round Oosthuizen told Chandler he was “bored” and Rasego said he never sensed even a hint of nervousness.
“This was the moment in time when he had to enjoy himself because it’s either now or never,” Rasego said.
A bogey at 17 and par at 18 only softened the blow for a shell-shocked field. If the overnights suffered from Oosthuizen’s stunner, there was some solace to be had in a performance that was at least Tiger-like.
Not that Woods himself had much to show for his week along the Firth of Forth.
Woods’ tie for 23rd place fell five strokes shy of the third leg of the T-4 slam, following identical finishes at Augusta National and Pebble Beach, and was more the byproduct of poor putting, or pace, depending on who one asks, than substandard ball-striking.
He was 38th in putting average, 52nd in greens in regulation and 37th in driving accuracy. Not quite 2000, or 2005 for that matter.
For weeks Woods has said he is close, but late one night in front of the famed Dunvegan, the quintessential St. Andrews pub, one of the frat brothers gave the most ringing endorsement of the world No. 1’s status.
“He’s this close to Tiger 2000,” said one major champion holding his thumb and forefinger inches apart. “When he gets it, we’re all screwed.”
As for those who say Woods’ 0-for-3 start to a Grand Slam season that pre-Nov. 27 looked like low-hanging fruit is a harbinger of slumps to come, consider that at 34 years old Jack Nicklaus had won just 12 of his 18 majors while Woods already has 14 Grand Slam bottle caps.
Following his final-round Woods was asked what he would remember of his fourth Open Championship at St. Andrews?
“I didn’t win, just like ’95,” he said flatly.
So much for the Grand Slam tap-in, but it’s good to know second still sucks.
By contrast, Phil Mickelson teed off with little or no expectations on Thursday with 13 clubs in the bag, adding to the litany of curious club combos the left-hander has marched onto the pitch with, but it did little to help his links resume.
A last-minute check to be sure his new putter conformed to the Rules of Golf forced Lefty to head down the first fairway with only 13 clubs. By the time he reached the first green officials had already returned it to him, and by the time Mickelson finished the week tied for 48th he should have been more concerned with his iron play having finished 73rd, last among those who made the cut, in greens in regulation.
Such was life at the strangest of Opens, a championship that began under a pall when Seve Ballesteros withdrew from the much-anticipated Champion’s Challenge and only became darker and more foreboding as the week progressed.
Weather forced the cancellation of the four-hole Champion’s Challenge and then, inexplicably, stopped play for an hour on Friday as officials waited for the winds to abate, or the grass to grow. Neither happened and the first weather suspension at the Open Championship since 1998 was largely panned by players and pundits as a waste of time.
“If you went to every green and said where’s the worst place we can put these pins, they did it on 18 greens,” Oliver Wilson said after missing the cut and playing through the worst of Friday’s gale. “Whoever set those pins should be fired.”
Not that the 150th anniversary was an entirely maudlin affair. John Daly resurrected ghosts of his 1995 victory at St. Andrews, if not his career, with a first-round 66 that put him three shots behind Rory McIlroy, who opened with 63 to momentarily steal the spotlight from Oosthuizen. And Tom Watson crossed the Swilken Bridge for the last time in an Open Championship late Friday.
But by the time the winds calmed and the stars flickered out, there was only Oosthuizen, whose nickname Shrek seemed a perfect metaphor for the mysterious new champion golfer who freely admits to bouts of anger and a lack of focus at times on the golf course.
“It's the gap in the teeth. My friends say I look like Shrek, some of my friends, and you can't choose your friends, so what can I say?” Oosthuizen said.
And, contrary to 137 years of history, the Old Course can’t pick its champions. But then who is to say Oosthuizen is not worthy after 72 flawless holes in fierce conditions?
For Open Championship week Chandler rented out the Jigger Inn, the storied pub next to the Old Course Hotel that overlooks the 17th fairway. Early Sunday he leaned in to whisper the password for entry to an acquaintance, “Tomorrow.” Or maybe he was just looking forward to Oosthuizen’s instantly-bright future.