A familiar face is leading the challenge of South Africans teeing up at the second men’s Major of the year, writes GARY LEMKE.
Louis Oosthuizen needs no reminding of the ones that have got away. Nor does he need you to point out that despite his 14 wins as a professional, including the 2010 Open Championship and victories in five countries on five Tours he has never won in the United States.
‘I’ve come close a few times, and I’ve felt I’ve played really well. It’s something I don’t really want to think about, but you do think about it now and then,’ says Oosthuizen.
He won The Open Championship at the Old Course at St Andrews for his sole PGA Tour win. The South African has twice lost a Major playoff, but perhaps the one that he feels could have, should have gone differently was the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay.
There he sat 12 shots off the first-round leaders, Dustin Johnson and Henrick Stenson, after an opening 77. However, that round was actually the best of his group; partners Tiger Woods shot 80 and Rickie Fowler 81. Such was the brutal nature of the course that Gary Player said it was ‘the worst golf course I might’ve ever seen in the 63 years as a professional golfer’, and Stenson reckoned the greens were like ‘putting on broccoli’.
In the second round, just to make the cut, Oosthuizen would have to shoot at least a three-under-par 68. He jumped that hurdle with a second-round 66 and followed with a third-round 66.
‘Being nine over through 20 holes, it looked like I would have been back in Florida today,’ he reflected at the time. Those 66s set a US Open record for lowest total in the two middle rounds and he was suddenly only three shots off the lead with 18 holes remaining.
Oosthuizen had given no indication of the fireworks to follow, and in fact it was countryman Branden Grace who had teed off in a four-way tie for the lead on 206, three shots clear of the group that included King Louis.
After 11 holes of the final round, Grace was tied with Jordan Spieth for the lead at four-under overall. Oosthuizen was six shots back with seven holes to play. All three birdied the 12th to retain the status quo. Then Oosthuizen also birdied 13 to 16 and when Grace went out of bounds and made a double-bogey on 16 they were both at three under, three shots behind Spieth. The last few holes are normally squeaky-bum time when it comes to the Majors and this was no different. Spieth made a double-bogey on No 17 and held a one-shot lead, along with Johnson, over Grace and Oosthuizen.
Oosthuizen duly made birdie at the last, but that was matched by Spieth who, at 21, became the youngest player since Gene Sarazen in 1922 to win two Majors in a season. Of scant consolation to the South African was that his closing 54-hole total of 199 was the lowest in US Open history. But he would have been counting every one of those 77 shots he took in the first round and bemoaned how different things could have been.
On the flight back to Florida he famously lip-synced Andra Day’s anthem, ‘Rise Up’.
And I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again
And I’ll rise up
High like the waves
I’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousands times again
Oosthuizen did exactly that a month later, coming within one shot of winning a second Open Championship at St Andrews, eventually losing in a three-way playoff.
Subsequently he has won the 2016 ISPS Handa Perth International and 2018 SA Open. Now he tees it up for the 11th time at a US Open. Last year he posted his third top-10 finish when tied seventh. Winning on United States soil should have been ticked off his list years ago. Golf? It’s a funny old game.
This year the US Open was pushed back from June to September due to the Covid-19 pandemic and because of this, the organisers announced that for the first time in the tournament’s history there would be no qualifying tournaments. The field would be filled with 144 exemptions.
Among them were five South Africans who had guaranteed their spots by the beginning of August: Oosthuizen, Erik van Rooyen, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Shaun Norris and JC Ritchie.
None of them have won on US soil, and all except Oosthuizen are relative rookies when it comes to playing in the Majors.
Van Rooyen, who will start his sixth Major, finished tie-43rd at his first US Open last year; Norris will be teeing up at his fifth Major, but first US Open, while Bezuidenhout is at his third Major and Ritchie is making his debut. Oosthuizen, by contrast, is a Major veteran. This will be the 46th of his career.
At Pebble Beach last year Van Rooyen played steadily, posting rounds of 71, 73, 72 and 70 to finish in a share of 43rd and he followed that with a tie-23rd at The Open before making a big breakthrough when winning the European Tour’s Scandanavian Invitation. That helped him break into the world’s top 50 by the end of the year, which in turn secured him spots at all four Majors for 2020. Of course, that was pre-Covid, which scuppered the year’s Masters.
‘The Majors are the pinnacle of our sport, so getting the opportunity to play at all four of them is really exciting,’ he said during lockdown. ‘This year I would love to secure my PGA Tour card; it’s a place I’d like to play more of my golf and my wife is American too. On the US Tour, you’re playing against the best of the best, so I’d like to compete at that level. If I can keep my Top 50 ranking, I’ll have about 12 opportunities to secure my card so I have to play well to do that.’
If successful, Van Rooyen sees himself playing the PGA and European Tours. ‘If you truly want to be a world-class player, you need to compete worldwide and not just in one environment. I feel I’m ticking off all the right boxes so my goal is just to put myself into contention as many times as I possibly can this year,’ he said.
Students of the game are adamant it’s a case of when, not if, Van Rooyen breaks through in the United States. He has the game to succeed anywhere and in February he finished in a tie for third at the WGC-Mexico Championship. The winner on that occasion? Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion. Second was Bryson DeChambeau, who has risen to the top 10. Alongside Van Rooyen in third was Jon Rahm, now the world No 1. A shot behind him was Rory McIlroy, four-time Major champion and current world No 2. That proves the South African belongs right at the top echelons of the current game. He would have as big a chance as any to ruffle feathers at Winged Foot.
Exemptions would also be granted to the top-10 aggregate point-earners for the first five events of the European Tour’s United Kingdom Swing, and Justin Harding had put himself in contention for a sport at Winged Foot by finishing third at the British Masters. Organisers would also look at the World Ranking to fill the field if needed. Branden Grace, at No 79, could come into contention.
Louis Oosthuizen (top 10 finish at 2019 US Open and world top 70 end March)
Erik van Rooyen (world top 70 end March)
Christiaan Bezuidenhout (world top 70 end March)
Shaun Norris (world top 70 end March)
JC Ritchie (winner of Sunshine Tour)
FLYING THE FLAG
(South African winners of the US Open)
1965: Gary Player and Kel Nagle were involved in a Monday playoff after tying at two-over 282 at Bellerive Country Club. In the playoff, Player shot a 71 to his opponent’s 74, to become the first foreign-born winner of the US Open since 1927. The win also completed the Grand Slam at the age of 29 and it was the fourth of his nine Majors.
1994: Ernie Els picked up his first Major when the tournament also went to a Monday conclusion after he, Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts had all finished the 72 holes in five-under 279 at Oakmont. In the 18-hole playoff, the 24-year-old South African and Roberts shot 74s (Montgomerie was eliminated after a 78) and Els then went on to triumph on the second hole in a sudden-death playoff.
1997: Els picked up his second US Open when beating Montgomerie by one shot at Congressional CC, after both had closed with 69s. Els finished four under par to capture the second of his four Major titles.
2001: Enter Retief Goosen. Having led after a first-round 66 at Southern Hills CC, the ‘Goose’ shared the halfway lead with Mark Brooks and JL Lewis, before a third-round 69 left him in a 54-hole tie with Stewart Cink. Goosen missed a two-foot putt on the final hole to fall into a Monday playoff with Brooks (four-under 266). In the playoff Goosen shot a level-par 70, while Brooks had a 72.
2004: Three years later Goosen won his second US Open, at Shinnecock Hills. He led Els and Phil Mickelson by two shots heading into the final 18 holes, where he and Mickelson shot 71s (Els had an 80) and Goosen ended a winner by two shots over Mickelson, on four-under 276.