Louis Oosthuizen wins British Open for first major title

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; D01

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND -- Had, say, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or even Lee Westwood delivered the performance that won the British Open Sunday, he would have been hailed as a great and worthy champion, a veteran player with the skill to negotiate the Old Course bluster and the résumé to suggest he was smart enough to understand his position, holding a sizeable lead. Another decorated champion would have taken the claret jug at St. Andrews, which tends to select such players, and the golfing world would have departed the home of its sport, treasuring the tournament just past.

But the author of that winning performance -- marvelous as it was for him, dull as it was for nearly everyone else -- was Louis Oosthuizen, a 27-year-old from a blue-collar family in Mossel Bay, South Africa. His primary international accomplishment, before this week, might have been winning the par-3 contest the day before the start of this year's Masters. Sunday, as the rest of the field treaded water -- birdies among the leaders were as rare as bikini-clad sunbathers on the West Sands beach across the way from the course -- Oosthuizen smiled his way around the Old Course, chuckling frequently.

"It was just fantastic," he said.

Why the heck wouldn't he enjoy it? The flogging he administered was complete. Oosthuizen's winning score of 16-under-par 272 was seven better than Westwood, the runner-up, the largest margin of victory at the British Open since Woods beat the field by eight on this very course in 2000.

"That was an unbelievable performance," said Paul Casey, Oosthuizen's playing partner. "He was very calm, played wonderful golf, and all credit to him."

But what to make of such a victory? It is scarcely Oosthuizen's fault that the rest of the field sleepwalked through the proceedings, and that few realize he could be a factor on the European tour, where he plays regularly. When Woods would win majors in such fashion -- something he hasn't done now for more than two years -- he was said to intimidate the field. Oosthuizen's nickname is "Shrek," the animated ogre. Gap-toothed? Sure. Intimidating? Hardly.

"I don't mind," he said.

Credentials aside, if Oosthuizen's four-shot overnight lead was to evaporate, he would have had to collapse, to some degree, and someone else would have had to surge. Neither happened. Martin Kaymer's birdie at the eighth hole came at 3:36 p.m., more than 90 minutes after Oosthuizen and Casey teed off. It was the first birdie of the day for any of the eight players in the last four groups.

This, then, is what amounted to drama: After opening with seven straight pars, Oosthuizen stumbled, failing to get up-and-down at the eighth, his first bogey in 25 holes. Casey, the Englishman who had similarly never contended in a major, thus found himself within three. Such a margin, in another tournament, could be considered commanding. On Sunday, that moment made it feel like a nail-biter.

"Three shots was nothing," Oosthuizen said.

Yet here is how he handled such adversity: He drove the green at the 352-yard ninth.

"I just had in my head I needed one putt just to get my rhythm going," he said.

So he stood over a putt of some 50 feet, and holed it, an eagle. Thus, even when Casey two-putted for birdie, Oosthuizen made the turn with a four-shot lead on Casey, an eight-shot advantage on the rest of the field.

Casey, then, stood as the only player with even a semblance of a chance -- until he hit his tee shot in a nasty, prickly gorse bush on the 12th, couldn't play his ball, and had to drop. He could have gotten up-and-down for bogey, but he hit his chip to the back of the green and made triple.

"That was very annoying," Casey said. "That was poor."

Oosthuizen, meanwhile, had reached the green in two, and waited while Casey finished out his ugly 7. When he rolled in his birdie, his lead was a staggering eight shots.

"All of a sudden, it was mine to throw away, really," Oosthuizen said.

He did not, and the rest of the tournament became merely a chance to appreciate the glory of St. Andrews -- which has produced such a sterling list of champions, from Bobby Jones to Sam Snead to Jack Nicklaus to Nick Faldo to Woods -- and consider where all this puts Oosthuizen. Five of the last six majors have been won by first-time champions -- Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, Y.E. Yang, Graeme McDowell and, now, Oosthuizen. Each of them knows something of the feeling Oosthuizen enjoyed Sunday.

"There's that little lingering sense of disbelief that it's the Sunday afternoon of a British Open," McDowell said.

That was what Oosthuizen had when he strode up the 18th fairway. "The best place to walk up in golf," Cink said. Oosthuizen thought of his countryman, Nelson Mandela, who celebrated his 92nd birthday Sunday. He doffed his cap to the fans along the street -- those perched on the balcony of the Rusacks Hotel, the ones on the deck above the Old Course Shop. He put his cap back on, they kept cheering, so he waved it again. When he got to his ball, which he had driven to the front of the green, there couldn't have been nerves. He could have taken nine putts, and still won.

When he finally tapped in for par, he hardly knew what to do. He removed his cap gently, hugged his caddie -- who quietly took the flag off the pin, a keepsake -- and then turned to find his wife and 2-year-old daughter striding across the green. At that moment, absorbed in a family embrace, it didn't matter where he fit in the pantheon of major champions. Any of 155 other golfers could have beaten him this week. None came close.

"To win an Open Championship is special," Oosthuizen said. "But to win it here at St. Andrews is just -- it's something you dream about."

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