ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – When Seve Ballesteros, the sentimental heart and soul of St. Andrews, was forced to withdraw from the Champion’s Challenge one could sense something was afoot; and when Mother Nature pulled the plug on the four-hole exhibition between heroes of Opens past it was clear the golf gods had something different planned for the 150th anniversary of the game’s oldest tilt.
If Louis Oosthuizen is to become the Tony Lema of our generation so be it, but we suspect the script is far from foregone at the Open Championship.
What Oosthuizen lacks in championship pedigree, he has more than made up for with an effortless one-piece action and some of the best lag putting this side of Augusta National.
Even playing alongside Mark Calcavecchia – who made a 9 at the par-5 fifth hole and looked like a man itching to get on the road to Carnoustie for next week’s Senior British Open – Oosthuizen made the game look easy.
But like an NBA game it’s the last quarter that counts and everyone makes a run.
The usual suspects have all come and gone. Tiger Woods said on Saturday following his second-consecutive 73 that he is hitting the ball better than he is scoring. Unfortunately for the world No.1 the claret jug is not doled out on an interpretative basis.
He will begin the final turn a dozen clear of the South African gate crasher, which is a better position than world No. 2 Phil Mickelson who bounced his tee shot off a corporate tent adjacent the 16th hole, insert your own joke here, and is another shot adrift at 2 under.
If there will be a challenge on Sunday it will likely come by way an often-injured Englishman who is fighting a cold and hasn’t been the same since a rib injury during his Open Championship warm-up last year sent him to the bench.
Paul Casey moved to within one stroke of Oosthuizen with a birdie at the eighth hole and posted a bogey-free 67 to trim a stroke off the South African’s 36-hole advantage, and if anyone within a pitching wedge of the leader has the game to run down a claret jug it is Casey.
Or at least it was Casey. That was before he injured a rib muscle preparing for last year’s Open Championship at Turnberry. Before he struggled through yet another nagging injury with what at times felt like an endless self life.
“This is the way he was swinging before the Open last year when he got hurt,” said Casey’s swing coach Peter Kostis. “It’s poetic justice that he’s playing well here.”
Or maybe it’s the golf gods looking for an out.
Barring a Dustin Johnson-like start for Oosthuizen on Sunday at the Old Course, it will be Casey or it will be a walk-over by a little-known champion on a course that has a history of favoring the favorite. Woods, Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Faldo, Oosthuizen – with all due respect to the affable South African, you pick which player doesn’t belong.
But the issue is simple math. Oosthuizen’s third-round 69 has eliminated most other options. Among the group within nine strokes of Oosthuizen not a single one of them has a major on the mantle.
Lee Westwood, at 7 under par, has the most experience, but his putting has been as cold as a Scottish breeze this week and his track record at major championships is hardly a reason to visit the local betting house.
“Stranger things have been happening this week,” Westwood said. “It can be done, we know that.”
One needed to look no further than Jean van de Velde for validation of Westwood’s optimism. Van de Velde is an on-course radio reporter this week and golf’s ultimate proper verb, as in “he pulled a Van de Velde.” But Oosthuizen doesn’t exactly have the look of the forlorn Frenchman and the Old Course, for all its history and appeal, is not Carnoustie.
Just as Casey and Westwood were about to tee off on the snapshot 18th hole well past cocktail hour on the Firth of Forth, Oosthuizen’s approach shot into the 17th hole rolled just over the green and onto the tee box a few feet from the Englishmen.
Westwood mockingly made a move toward the golf ball with his driver. It wasn’t exactly a white-flag moment, but the field, and the golf gods, are running out of time and options.