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British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen won't be a one-hit wonder

South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen, 27, is no longer a no-name after his dominant, seven-stroke victory at St. Andrews.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND

To bystanders, Louis Oosthuizen seemed to be strolling by the silvery beach of the North Sea. White seagulls drifted overhead like scraps of paper, and the flight of his golf ball traced pretty paths against the pale sky. He passed down St Andrews' broad fairways like he was out for fresh air. There was more drama in church or at brunch than in the final round of this British Open.

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The problem with a great performance is that it can be monotonous. It wasn't dull for Oosthuizen, of course, tensely negotiating the dangers of the Old Course. But for the rest of us, Oosthuizen's technical soundness and unshakeable disposition turned the last day of this major championship into a sightseeing trip. The real competition was over hours before the tournament actually ended with his 71 and seven-stroke victory, and he lifted the claret jug in front of the parchment-colored stone redoubt of the Royal and Ancient building. "I could have thrown it away," he said. But that hardly seemed true.

From the outset to the finish, Oosthuizen was the straightest driver, best ball striker and purest putter in the field. Moreover, the 27-year-old farmer's son from South Africa showed the steadiest temperament, suffering not a single hand tremble. Paul Casey probably never had an honest chance of winning even before his ball disappeared in the heavy gorse of the 12th hole. Lee Westwood simply wasn't a factor. And if you saw an American, it was only because someone stepped in front of your TV screen at home.

The last time a player kicked a field this badly in a final round at St. Andrews, his name was Tiger Woods. And that automatically made Oosthuizen an interesting champion. Though a deceptively blase one. His victory didn't have the majesty of Woods's eight-stroke triumph here in 2000. He came seemingly out of nowhere, having missed seven of eight cuts in previous majors. And nobody could get his name right. Westinghouse? Osterizer? But it's a historical fact that the Old Course doesn't suffer fools or reward flukes. Everything suggested it would be a grave mistake to write Oosthuizen off as just a one-time winner, who won't trouble us by contending again.

Oosthuizen went 65-67-69 for the first three rounds on a course full of landmines and tortured by changeable weather. More casual or cynical observers could be pardoned for predicting he would choke -- "That's a pretty mean saying," he said -- but knowledgeable insiders understood Oosthuizen would have to be reckoned with. Among them was his closest pursuer, Casey. "I'm playing absolutely great golf and I'm four shots behind Louis," Casey said ruefully. The Englishman shot 67 Saturday and yet was almost discouraged, because he knew who he was dealing with. "I would love to replicate that [Sunday]," Casey said. "I'm not sure it would be enough with the way Louis is playing."

For much of the day, all was stillness. The scoreboard showed uniform rows of pars in a wind that blew a middling 15 to 25 mph. The field seemed locked in stasis, the galleries were quiet; there was no distant thunder of ovations signaling a move. Oosthuizen was so steady off the tee that he hardly bothered to watch his ball land. He would stripe it down the middle, then lean over and retrieve his tee and thrust his club back in the bag matter-of-factly.

But any question that Oosthuizen was a competitive flatliner was settled at the 352-yard, par-4 ninth hole. Casey had hopes of cutting the lead to two when he drove the green for a look at eagle -- and wound up pulling a stake out of his heart. Oosthuizen drove the green too, and stepped up and coiled a 50-foot winder into the hole for eagle. After that, Casey's birdie just seemed more frustrating than encouraging. There was simply no sign of weakness in Oosthuizen's game, or his mind.

Golf has had a deep run of first-time major champions lately, and they haven't exactly enhanced the game's star quality. The 2009 British champion, Stewart Cink, has just one top-five finish in his last 23 tournaments. The 2009 U.S. Open champion, Lucas Glover, has just two top fives in his last 26. The 2009 PGA winner, Y.E. Yang, missed three of his last four cuts coming into this week.

The spectator wonders, where are the players who are going to be in record books? Who will be names of historical importance? Especially as so many stalwarts get older. Phil Mickelson (three Masters, one PGA Championship) is 40. Retief Goosen (two U.S. Opens) is 41. Vijay Singh (one Masters, two PGA Championships) is 47. Padraig Harrington (two British Opens, one PGA) is about to turn 39.

Then there is Woods, 34, obviously struggling to recover his form after the scandals of the past few months. Meanwhile, the horde of promising young players, such as Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, and Ryo Ishikawa, have yet to mature.

As prestigious as his victory at St. Andrews was, in order be considered something more than an anomaly, Oosthuizen will have to win more majors. But his performance here suggests he can win again -- and again. That's not just optimism, it's a statistical probability. Only 14 men have ever won a major title by seven or more strokes. Just two of them were one-and-done winners: Fred Herd (1898 U.S. Open by seven), and Willie Smith (1899 U.S. Open by 11).

If Oosthuizen gave us a less-than-thrilling finish on Sunday, there was the distinct sense that, in the long run, he will be an interesting development for golf. As he walked up 18, the St. Andrews crowd roared for him with the appreciation of connoisseurs who knew the quality of what they had just watched.


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