• King Louis: Class is permanent

    Louis Oosthuizen
    King Louis finally secured his home crown

    South Africa’s top-ranked golfer, Louis Oosthuizen, is again showing the form that made him a Major contender, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.

    One of the goals Oosthuizen set himself for 2018 was to end the year ranked in the world’s top 20. Those who watched him finish the season will still be wondering how a player with his extraordinary talent closed for his summer break at ‘only’ No 25. But to the South African it represented positive progress.

    Consider this: Oosthuizen last missed a cut at The Players Championship in May and went a career-record 14 successive tournaments through all 72 holes. And he ended 2018 with four top-10s in his final five events, while victory at the South African Open, by six shots no less, in December not only fulfilled a long-time ambition, but also saw him join a select group of golfers.

    Only Bobby Locke, Bob Charles, Gary Player, Ernie Els and Henrik Stenson had previously achieved what Oosthuizen now has – win two of the oldest Opens in world golf, the SA Open and The Open Championship, which Oosthuizen did in 2010 for what remains his only Major title so far, and indeed his only victory on the PGA Tour.

    For someone of Oosthuizen’s ability, many of golf’s aficionados remain puzzled why the 36-year-old self-confessed boertjie hasn’t won more tournaments. Sure, he has come close, famously being runner-up in all three other Majors and the unofficial fifth men’s Major, The Players Championship.

    He lost out in a playoff to Bubba Watson at the 2012 Masters, tied for second at the 2015 US Open, was edged in a playoff at the 2015 Open Championship and tied for second at the 2017 PGA Championship, while he was also bridesmaid at the 2017 Players Championship.

    People talk of the fine margins at the highest level of the game, but all this is proof that the South African could easily have been a five-time Major champion at this stage of his career, although the way he ended 2018 suggests that something has clicked again and he will be a man to watch over the coming season.

    Perhaps it’s coincidence, but the manner in which Oosthuizen finished 2018 can be traced back to when he started using his new Ping Blueprint blades, at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship last October. There, he finished tie-32nd, followed by tie-fifth at the CIMB Classic, tie-29th at The CJ Cup and then finishes of third, first and tie-seventh at the Nedbank Golf Challenge, SA Open and Alfred Dunhill Championship respectively.

    When he won the SA Open he had 13 Ping clubs in the bag – the only non-Ping piece of equipment is the Titleist TS3 fairway wood, although he had swung the Ping G400 fairway wood in his previous event at Sun City. He has the names of his wife and three daughters (Nella, Jana, Sophia and Emma) stamped on his lob-wedge and admits that the new clubs seem to have made a difference.

    ‘The first tournament I used them in was the Alfred Dunhill Links and I’ve felt a difference. My iron play has got really good and I think I narrowed a lot of bad shots down to be half decent, while my good shots have been really good. My feel with the new irons is a lot better and so far I have had great success,’ he said.

    It was also noticeable towards the end of the year that not only did Oosthuizen’s irons seemed to be more ‘dialled in’, but he was also putting more aggressively and with a lot of confidence. Was that a fair comment, I asked him? ‘Ja … I’ve been working on a few things … I struggled to see the lines at Leopard Creek so I was a little more tentative, but the lines I did see, I committed to them. I rolled the ball nicely and hit it well. The greens at Leopard Creek were firm and fast and they should be a lot better in the next 12 months and beyond when they’ve settled.’

    Oosthuizen has always been upfront when he says his three favourite things in life are ‘golf, farming and family, although not necessarily in that order’. Closer to the truth would be family, farming and golf, and he cut an emotional figure when the final putt dropped at Randpark in December to give him a six-shot win the first time he’d teed up at his national Open since 2010, ironically the year he went on to win The Open Championship at St Andrews.

    ‘I wish the family were here,’ a tearful Oosthuizen told Dale Hayes at greenside, ending a winless drought that extended to the ISPS Handa Perth International in February 2016. ‘The crowd was great this whole week; it was nice to do it for them,’ he said.

    Talking of crowds, Oosthuizen is a huge favourite with locals, who seem to identify with his laid-back attitude, which belies the steely determination behind those dark glasses. ‘I’m aware of the crowds, and when you’re playing well you can hear them; it’s always nice to know the home crowd is behind you. If you’re playing well and you’ve got a crowd who likes golf, everything is good. If you’ve got a drinking crowd following you, it’s not so good.’

    Oosthuizen didn’t have long to wait to reconnect with the family after his SA Open heroics. ‘The next day I saw them at the airport in Nelspruit and it was quite emotional; there were plenty of hugs. My wife says she was shouting at the girls, saying, “Come watch the TV, Daddy’s winning” but the next thing they were back on their iPads playing games. So, I’m not really sure if they know their daddy’s office and day job is playing golf.’

    In looking ahead to his 2019 schedule, Oosthuizen has again targeted a place in the top 20 in the World Ranking – and top 10 if things go his way. Some have questioned his attitude over the past few year, asking why he didn’t make himself available for the SA Open, or even for the 2016 Rio Olympics, but he has always been consistent that everything hangs on a carefully planned schedule and where things slot into his calendar.

    However, he admits that 2019 will be different with changes in the calendar.

    ‘As usual, I will have a strong focus on the Majors and the big world events. I also want to play a bit more on the PGA Tour. It’s going to be very busy from March to September, so it’s definitely not going to be a seven-month period when you are going to take weeks off. Maybe a week here and there, but it’s different to previous years. However, it’s the same old thing, in that every time you tee up you try to have a good week. Having said that, I am going to be doing a few things to dial in around the Majors.’

    Later in the year it’s The Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, where Ernie Els will try to steer the Internationals to victory over the United States for the first time since 1998, ironically at the same venue where the teams clash in November. Els was part of the International team which earned a tie in 2003 – the ‘Big Easy’ and Tiger Woods were locked together in the gloom when captains Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus shook hands to close the event – and Oosthuizen is looking forward to being captained by one of the finest golfers the game has seen.

    ‘Everyone’s excited about The Presidents Cup, and we have a good chance of doing something in Australia. We just need to come together as a team. Ernie has been great so far with some of the suggestions he has made,’ said Oosthuizen, who as South Africa’s highest-ranked golfer, is going to have a big responsibility on his own shoulders.

    Oosthuizen pays a lot of attention to the World Rankings, and after winning the Volvo Golf Champions on the European Tour in January 2013 he reached a career-high No 4, after closing out 2012 in sixth position on the ladder. ‘I love to play for World Ranking points and I’m always keen to know where I am and what I have to do, so it’s fair to say I like to look at the rankings. I feel like I have taken a strong mental approach into 2019 and while a win is always great, as good a boost as the SA Open was, I still have to play well. But the stuff I’m doing is working and I must keep on track and aim to build on it this season.’

    Another tick in the positive column is the state of the South African’s health. His back has given him problems over the years and was reported as the reason he withdrew from the 100th PGA Championship last August. However, he was quick to dispel any lingering doubts. ‘The body is great … now and then I get a few niggles, but all is good on the whole,’ he said with confidence.

    One has to go into 2019 wondering when, not if, Oosthuizen is going to win for the first time on US soil. He has come close so often and has the experience to know what it feels like to be in the mix on the back nine of a Sunday for it not to happen. Sure, it’s fair to say the depth of men’s golf has never been stronger, but the more things change the more they stay the same when it comes to the South African.

    He is always spoken about as having one of the best swings in the game. He’s not a big man, but generates enormous power off the tee and is one of the purest ball strikers on Tour. In fact, when one stands near him and watches him go about his iron play, there seems to be a different sound to the ball coming off the clubface than with many other professionals. There’s incredible feel and timing in his game and towards the end of 2018 he was swinging and striking as well as he ever did.

    If Oosthuizen were to review his 2018 he would probably feel he could have, should have, won the NGC. But you can’t take anything away from English veteran Lee Westwood, who powered through with a final-round 64 to win his third title at Sun City by putting together a final nine holes that would make a highlights reel of that, or any other year for that matter.

    Oosthuizen ‘hung tough’ at Sun City, admitting after a third-round 72 that it ‘was tough the whole way round for me’, but he put himself in a position to win when going six-under for the day after 14 holes of the final round. A drop at No 15 and a double-bogey at the 18th hurt his cause, although, in fairness, by the time he got to the final hole Westwood had already hit the front. The Englishman birdied the 11th, 13th, 14th, 16th and 17th to come home in 31 blows, and when that happens you can only applaud the winner.

    But the South African has it in him to shoot low on the big occasion – as he showed when putting together an opening blemish-free nine-under 62 in the first round of the SA Open at the Bushwillow course. Further rounds of 70 and two matching 67s sealed off the comfortable win. Consider too, that his brand revolves around the 57 he shot at Mossel Bay Golf Course, where he also has a 59, made when he recorded an eagle two at the closing hole.

    Oosthuizen is a gentleman of the game and one of the most popular sports people in South Africa.

    No one will begrudge him converting one, or more, of those runner-up positions at the Majors into another victory to go with his 2010 Open success.

    – This article appeared as the cover of the February issue of Compleat Golfer

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