This much we thought we knew: that when an unknown golfer goes to the front of a major championship, at some point he realises where he is. He thinks, “Ye gods, I can win the Open”, whereupon the gods in question open a trap door and he falls straight through it, usually into a fathomless bunker or lake.
No one mentioned this to Lodewicus Theodorus Oosthuizen, more commonly known as Louis – but, actually, hardly known to anyone at all outside the week-in, week-out golf circuit until three days ago.
Oosthuizen, from Mossel Bay, South Africa, was four strokes ahead, going into the last round of the Open on its 150th anniversary, at St Andrews of all places. Not merely did he not falter, he never even contemplated the possibility.
For the first half of the afternoon there were the makings of a duel with his only surviving rival, the Englishman Paul Casey. But for Casey, the putts would not drop. He narrowed the lead to three, but at the ninth Oosthuizen sunk an eagle putt that was a stab to Casey’s heart. A groan was heard from the stands, as the crowd sensed they were seeing a procession rather than a contest.
Three holes later, Casey drove into a gorse bush, had to take a penalty and misread his escape shot. The process was interminable. Oosthuizen calmly leant on his putter through it all, and then birdied; poor old Casey tripled-bogeyed. Across Britain, television sets were switched off; it was time to mow the lawn.
Oosthuizen ultimately won by seven strokes, one short of Tiger Woods’s modern record. He was 16 under par for the tournament, having had rounds of 65-67-69-71, a set of scores once achieved by Jack Nicklaus and which persuaded a dimwit American journalist to ask him: “Jack, what went wrong with your game?”
Nothing at all went wrong with Oosthuizen’s game. He consistently drove more than 300 yards; he flirted with bunkers without landing in them; he putted beautifully; he laughed at the wind; he played thoughtful, clever links golf. Throughout, he was in the golfing zone, a state of grace achieved by Woods for most of his life and for others among us once, many years ago, for about a hole and a half.
What is uncertain is whether this was a one-off fluke, turning Oosthuizen into a pub-quiz question, alongside such one-off winners as Stewart Cink (2009), Todd Hamilton (2004) or Ben Curtis (2003). But Tom Watson, who entranced everyone by almost beating Cink last year aged 59, was also hardly known when he first won in 1975, and became an all-time great.
Oosthuizen is 27, hardly a kid. But his main achievement until Sunday was winning the Andalusian Open; he has missed four cuts out of six this year; and, though he played his first major six years ago, he had never before come higher than 73rd. Although the last day of the Open did not live up to its reputation for thrilling turnrounds, it at least maintained golf’s standing as the most mysterious of all games.
Casey eventually lost second place to the perennial nearly-man, his fellow Englishman Lee Westwood, and tied for third place with Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Henrik Stenson of Sweden, eight behind Oosthuizen.
McIlroy, who hit a 63 on the opening day and 80 on the second, now has the mad record of playing 12 rounds at St Andrews without a single score in the 70s.
Woods, meanwhile, finished joint 23rd. His problem was that until late Sunday, he still had a chance of winning, at least on the (false) assumption that Oosthuizen would implode. Neither his swing nor his mood were up to a challenge, but the fallen champ seemed much calmer once he had given up hope.
He even signed dozens of autographs before leaving, a rare sight.