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Oosthuizen's Open Championship reign ends - maybe

SANDWICH, England – Louis Oosthuizen tries to keep his lifestyle as simple as that beautiful swing that carried him to the British Open championship last summer at St. Andrews.

Not even having the claret jug in his possession for a year changed that.

The South African had to return golf’s oldest prize to the Royal & Ancient in advance of his title defense starting Thursday at Royal St. George’s. Unlike some past champions, there were no wild tales about where it had been or what kind of drinks he poured from the jug.

The most treasured moment involved his roots.

Oosthuizen, the son of farmers along the Garden Route in South Africa, grew up playing at tiny Albertinia Golf Club, a nine-hole course with greens made of sand-and-oil. After his seven-shot victory, he took the trophy there to show his friends.

“That was the most special thing for me, having the claret jug there at a golf club that’s probably got 42, 43 members which are basically field farmers and a few guys in town,” he said. “And that’s where I grew up. That was quite a special moment for me.”

Oosthuizen spent a year under the burden of being an Open champion, yet he wouldn’t mind keeping the jug around.

“It’s a great honor,” he said. “But from here on out, you’re not the Open champion anymore. Well, unless …”

Two players in the last six years have successfully defended the British Open – Padraig Harrington at Royal Birkdale in 2008, and Tiger Woods at Royal Liverpool in 2006.

Oosthuizen’s chances of joining them have not been improved by mediocre form in the lead-up to his arrival on England’s southeastern coast.

He started the year by winning the Africa Open, but missed the cut in some of the biggest events – The Masters, The Players Championship and the BMW PGA Championship – before he tied for ninth in the U.S. Open. If he thought his golf was headed in the right direction, he got a does of reality when he missed the cut last week in the John Deere Classic.

Then again, he wasn’t playing all that well when he arrived at St. Andrews last year. Then he found something in this swing during the practice rounds, found his rhythm, got some good fortune with the weather and wound up with largest margin of victory in the Open since Woods won by eight shots in 2000.

“I probably didn’t feel that confident last year going into the Open, but after the first round, I knew the game was there,” Oosthuizen said. “It was just a matter of keeping everything together.”

The landscape is much different now, and not just because of a surface akin to the surface of the moon, with humps and hollows that can deflect the ball just about anywhere.

The star of golf is no longer Woods, or any American, for that matter. It’s all about 22-year-old Rory McIlroy, coming off his eight-shot win in the U.S. Open. Then there’s Luke Donald, who won by four shots Sunday in the Scottish Open to cement his spot atop the world ranking.

Oosthuizen is more than just another name in the field.

For one thing, British fans hold a special place in their hearts for the Open champion, no matter their fame or form. Besides, how can anyone ever forget a name like Oosthuizen. Not only did it take longer than most to engrave on the claret jug, even after all his success, it’s one name in golf that people have trouble pronouncing.

It’s WUHST-hay-zen.

“It’s not an easy surname,” he said. “It’s probably more annoying when they say, ‘I’ve been practicing it for a month,’ and they still get it wrong. No, no, it’s fine. I know it’s not the easiest surname.”

And then there was the announcer at Riviera for the Northern Trust Open. He went to great care to pronounce the name correctly, going over it several times until he had it just right. And he pronounced it correctly. But at the last second, the starter noticed the “RSA” next to his name to denote the Republic of South Africa.

“Louis Oosthuizen,” the starter said. “From Russia.”

Oh, well. No matter how it gets pronounced, it is spelled correctly on the base of that silver claret jug. And even though Oosthuizen had to return the trophy this week, he will always be an Open champion.