Unlikely Champion


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Consensus around town is that dudes named Louis Oosthuizen don’t win Open Championships at the Old Course.

It’s been the common theme among scribes, patrons and passersby the past three days. No disrespect to the unheralded South African but these hallowed grounds are reserved for legends named Woods, Faldo, Nicklaus, Snead and Jones.

But, just as the week has been unpredictable, it’d only be following the script if an unpredictable champion walked away with his first major championship, the claret jug and the title of Champion Golfer of the Year.

Would Oosthuizen be a more unlikely winner than, say, a 59-year-old Tom Watson or an aging Greg Norman? Would he come from further off the radar than Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis or Paul Lawrie?

No. But this is St. Andrews. It’s the home of golf. It’s the Old Course.

“I don’t think anyone was thinking I was going to be up there,” Oosthuizen said. “No one can actually say my surname, so they don’t even know who I am out there.”

Perhaps Oosthuizen (pronounced WUHST’-hy-zen) is this generation’s Tony Lema, the 1964 Open winner here who downed Jack Nicklaus by five shots. Although “Champagne Tony” was a surprise winner, it’s still an apples-to-oranges comparison with Oosthuizen.

Oosthuizen, 27, has only won once on the European Tour and has missed the cut in seven-of-eight majors that he’s played. His best finish is a 73rd place in the 2008 PGA Championship.

Louis Oosthuizen
Oosthuizen takes a 4-shot lead into Sunday at St. Andrews. (Getty Images)

Lema entered the ’64 Open Championship having won three of his previous four events in the U.S. The real oddity is that he arrived at the Old Course two days prior to the championship and it was the first time he’d ever seen the place. He hired a local caddie that Arnold Palmer recommended, somehow quickly mastered the art of links golf, drove the ball and stomped the Golden Bear by week’s end.

I realize it’s just a hang-up with the Old Course.

If you close your eyes and pretend that you’re at any other Open venue, there are similarities between Oosthuizen and recent major champions. Graeme McDowell, last month’s U.S. Open winner, and Oosthuizen both have compact, repeatable swings and make every crucial putt they have to. Lucas Glover, 2009 U.S. Open champion, stayed calm all week – another Oosthuizen trait. Trevor Immelman, the 2008 Masters champion, has the same South African roots as Oosthuizen and both grew up idolizing Gary Player and Ernie Els.

“Louis has actually been playing some really good golf this year,” said Retief Goosen. “He has one of the best golf swings on Tour, and he’s a good wind player, grew up in an area that’s very windy.

“He’s very focused, very nice guy, one of the nicest guys on Tour.”

During a Saturday 69, when the whole world though he’d wilt like a daisy on a hot summer day in the south, Oosthuizen showed traits that a champion needs. He was calm, cool and collected. Almost like a mirror image of fellow countryman Goosen.

After a nervous three-putt at the first that produced sighs from the gallery almost in unison, he made birdies at Nos. 7 and 9. He then poured in two more birdies at the 16th and 18th holes to take a four-shot lead into the final round over Paul Casey.

“Tomorrow I’m probably going to do pretty much the same and just go out there, hit shot for shot and never get ahead of myself,” Oosthuizen said. “The Open at St. Andrews would be something special. It’s one of those things you dream of.”

When the sun sets on St. Andrews Sunday evening Oosthuizen won’t care that his name doesn’t fit well with previous champions at the venerable venue and, chances are, if victorious, he’ll be more than happy to accept the comparisons with Champagne Tony Lima.

Afterall, that’s much better than the comparisons that people have been thinking all week – ones with Jean Van de Velde or Dustin Johnson, men known mostly for their major failures than their triumphs.

There are only 18 holes separating us from the answer to the question so many people want to know. Can a dude named Louis Oosthuizen win an Open Championship at the Old Course?