He has one Major to his name and a round of 57 that launched his business brands. South Africa’s golfing royalty however remains firmly grounded.
By Gary Lemke
It’s not by accident that Louis Oosthuizen is known as a ‘boertjie’ among South Africans following the international golf circuit, or that he’s regarded as a ‘farmer’ by fellow professionals. After winning The Open Championship by seven shots in 2010 at St Andrews, with one of the great front-running performances in the modern era, Oosthuizen treated himself to a John Deere tractor for the farm he owns in Albertinia.
‘You can ask him anything about John Deere,’ says his, father, Piet, who himself bought his first Model A tractor in 1957. ‘Louis is on the computer every day, and he knows every spec of every piece of John Deere equipment. He loves it.’
Then, after winning a car at the Volvo Champions tournament at Durban CC three years ago, Oosthuizen spoke to the organisers and traded the vehicle in for an excavator for the farm. ‘I’ve been nagging my wife for a few years that I wanted something for the farm as there are a few stumps and things I need to get rid of. So I’m going to play around with it and might dig out a few bunkers.’
He is known on the circuit as a man whose priorities are his family, his farm and his golf, in that order. In December I arranged to meet him in Mossel Bay and a date was organised. Later he sent an email and apologised that he couldn’t meet on that particular date and asked if we make it a day earlier. ‘It’s my daughter’s birthday and we’re having a party for her and I can’t miss it,’ he said, highlighting how down to earth he is.
Oosthuizen, who is a product of the Ernie Els Foundation, and turned professional aged 19 back in 2002, is these days comfortably nestled inside the world’s top 20. He has a home in the United States and although you can take the boy out of the bush, you can’t take the bush out of the boy. Before a 2016 season that started with a seven-under-par round of 65 in Qatar, he spent a few weeks holidaying in the southern Cape, before going up to Namibia, where he soaked up the sand and the sun. In fact, Oosthuizen so enjoyed being back home again after a long year on tour, that he is going to try sneak back in April for another break.
When asked to name his favourite place in the world, he hovered. ‘It’s between Albertinia and Mossel Bay,’ he said. Seriously? ‘Seriously’. His favourite meal? ‘Chops and a braai broodjie.’ Rugby team? ‘The Stormers.’ There can be no mistaking his South Africanism and it would come as no surprise if he said he had the country’s flag burned into his bum with a cattle prod.
The 33-year-old is one of South Africa’s great sporting exports, a down-to-earth family man – father to three daughters, the oldest of whom, Jana, recently started school at the age of six – and a popular man on the PGA and European Tours. Like any top golfer, and when you’re a Major champion and entrenched in the world’s top 20 you can make the ball ‘talk’, he is an incredible ball striker.
Standing on the practice tee at Pinnacle Point, the Mossel Bay estate where he has his own golf academy, he asks what shot I’d like to see. ‘Cut it?’ I venture. ‘OK, with the cut I’ll aim left side of the fairway, and I want my feet and everything to aim that way. My club will release a little bit to the left, which is the cutting.’ And with that he launches the ball down the practice fairway. You can hear the gasps from kids and adults as the ball sails away with a perfect cut shape.
Oosthuizen is one of the world’s finest links players, which is unsurprising as he grew up at the coast, and he learned and honed his skills in the wind. When he won The Open in 2010 he did so in appalling conditions, while last year he finished runner-up, on the same St Andrews Old Course, which he considers his favourite in the world.
There are no weaknesses in his game and his play out of the bunkers is a joy to behold. Faced with a deliberately plugged lie at Pinnacle Point – ‘I’m going to have to get my grader for this one,’ he quipped – he settled into his stance. ‘You want to cut in probably an inch or so behind the ball and hit down on it so that the sand actually compresses the ball and pops it up. Hands a little bit forward, get as steep on it as possible and it will come out with a top spinner. It normally comes out a little bit more right of where you’re aiming.’ Bang. Just like that.
This year life has changed a bit for Oosthuizen. ‘I’m a real family man and enjoy my time with the family unit. My wife, Nel-Mare, and I have been married for nine years and we have three beautiful daughters. We used to all go on tour together, and this was still the case until last August when Jana started school, so this year it’s a bit different and I’m going to be doing most of the weeks on my own.
‘It looks like I’m going to be on my own four weeks out of five, and basically see the family just the one week. There will be weeks when we’ll probably take Jana out of school to be with me when I’m travelling and playing. The other two [daughters] aren’t in the school system yet so they’re fine to travel, but we’ll see how it goes. They’re still young and adaptable so we’ll see if home schooling is an option.
‘The girls do recognise me on TV when I’m playing and they’re at ‘home’ in the States, but I don’t really think golf is their ‘go-to’ channel on TV. I don’t think it’s one of the things they really watch! Luckily, they still miss me when I go away and I chat to them every night via Skype. And the oldest one wants to Face Time me all the time … it’s good to know they want to talk to me at least.’
Oosthuizen is good mates with Charl Schwartzel, another Major-winning South African, although it’s more likely to be Branden Grace he partners at this year’s Rio Olympics, where golf is being included for the first time. ‘We’ve all had to alter our playing schedules this year to accommodate the Olympics. It’s going to be fun going to Rio, although the format – 72-hole medal – ought to have been different because now it’s just like another tournament on tour, there were plenty of possibilities.’
Although the ‘boertjie’ tag follows Oosthuizen, 2016 is the year where he is hoping to swap the boots and shorts for a business suit, metaphorically speaking. He is finding his email box increasingly filled up with business requests relating to his growing ‘Louis 57’ brand. He has launched a new Louis 57 wine range – ‘I prefer red, but the whites are also superb’ – Louis 57 Coffee, Louis 57 Travel, Louis 57 Merchandise, the Louis 57 Junior Golf Academy, Louis 57 Foundation, Route 57 Restaurant in Mossel Bay, Louis 57 Golf Course Design, Louis 57 Events and is opening Major Golf shops around the country, a ‘home’ to all things relating to South Africa’s Major golf champions.
The farm is going to take a backseat to golf and a growing business as Oosthuizen enters a new chapter in his life. In case you were wondering why the brand is called ‘Louis 57’ it is a natural: in December 2002 at Mossel Bay Golf Course the then 20-year-old shot a 57. Seven birdies on the front nine had him out in 29 and three birdies and two eagles had him standing on the par-four 18th tee after 54 shots. Another birdie later and he was signing for a 57.
‘That was a great experience, but there was another occasion, also at Mossel Bay, when I shot a 59. That was tough,’ he explained. ‘I reached the 18th tee with 57 and knew I’d need an eagle-two to break 60. The wind was coming nicely over my right shoulder and it was 300m to the green, so I just went for it with my driver. The pin was cut front left and I’d left myself about 20 feet short. It was a Wednesday afternoon and the club members had heard I was on to break 60 and came out on to the balcony. Luckily the putt dropped!’
When asked what he would do if he ever found himself in a position to shoot lower than, staring at, say, a three-foot putt for a 56, he laughed. ‘There is no way I’d make that putt! I’d either two- or three-putt it. Imagine what would happen to that Louis 57 brand, all that hard work undone! Nah, that 57 was seriously a one-off. Apart from those two in the fifties, I think my lowest on the Tour has been a 62.’
While we’re talking the local media have cottoned on to the fact that Oosthuizen is in town and they’ve made their way to Pinnacle Point. Everyone seemingly wants a piece of him in a town where he is celebrated for putting the place on the global map. And, as you would expect, he finds time to pose for photographs with the locals and sign countless autographs.
Away from the local limelight, he stays at Old Palm Golf Course in Palm Beach Gardens and it’s a regular pit-stop for the other South Africans on Tour. Oosthuizen, like most Saffas outside the country, gets rather competitive over the braai – he prefers lamb chops to a good piece of steak – while he also enjoys his fishing, regularly ‘competing’ with house guests at the pond behind the golf range on the estate.
He’s also earned himself someone of a reputation as a prankster. On one occasion Schartzel and Richard Sterne were staying at his house in Florida and on the morning of a Pro-am, Schwartzel woke to find all the contents of of his golf bag strewn untidily across the floor at the front entrance. Boys will be boys, and all that.
Last November, Oosthuizen volunteered with Golf Digest to accompany a reporter as an intern in the streets of New York. His job was to hold up pictures of famous golfers and stop people in the street to see if they could recognise the face. Tiger Woods was a popular choice, while others correctly identified were Sergio Garcia and Arnold Palmer. Then Oosthuizen held up one of himself. A number of people were unfamiliar, until one said. ‘That’s the South African guy, I can’t pronounce his name … Oost-hayzen’. The ‘intern’ helped him out, ‘Louis Oosthuizen’ delivered with a hint of Afrikaans in the accent. ‘How did you know?’ asked the New Yorker. ‘Well, he kinda looks like me,’ Oosthuizen replied – and the penny finally dropped.
The chances are that if Oosthuizen gets a run of form going into this year’s Majors and the Rio Olympics, few people anywhere will fail to recognise one of the finest golfers on the planet, someone who tickles hearts from Albertinia to New York and beyond.
Lemke is editorial sports director at Highbury Safika Media in Cape Town.