x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

From African farmlands to British Open fairways

Oosthuizen is proud of his roots but the returning champion is not in the best form as he prepares to defend his title.

SANDWICH, England // Louis Oosthuizen tries to keep his lifestyle as simple as that beautiful swing that carried him to the British Open Championship last summer at St Andrews in Scotland.

Not even having the Claret Jug in his possession for a year changed that. The South African had to return golf's oldest prize to the Royal & Ancient in advance of his title defence at Royal St George's. Unlike some past champions, there were no wild tales about where it had been or what kind of drinks he poured from the jug.

The most treasured moment involved his roots. Oosthuizen, the son of farmers along the Garden Route in South Africa, grew up playing at the tiny Albertinia Golf Club, a nine-hole course with greens made of sand and oil. After his seven-shot victory, he took the trophy there to show his friends.

"That was the most special thing for me, having the Claret Jug there at a golf club that's probably got 42, 43 members, which are basically field farmers and a few guys in town," he said. "And that's where I grew up. That was quite a special moment for me."

As for giving the trophy back?

Much like the sensation Graeme McDowell felt when he returned to defend his title at the US Open, it was a mixture of sadness and relief. Oosthuizen spent a year under the burden of being an Open champion, yet he would not mind keeping the jug around.

"I think it's a great honour," he said. "But from here on out, you're not the Open champion anymore. Well, unless ..."

Two players in the last six years have successfully defended the British Open — Padraig Harrington at Royal Birkdale in 2008, and Tiger Woods at Royal Liverpool in 2006. Although, Oosthuizen has not arrived in England in the best form.

He started the year by winning the Africa Open, but missed the cut in some of the biggest events — the Masters, The Players Championship and the BMW PGA Championship — before he tied for ninth in the US Open.

Then again, he was not playing all that great when he arrived at St Andrews last year. But he found something in this swing during the practice rounds, found his rhythm, got a good break with the weather and wound up with largest margin of victory in the British Open since Woods won by eight shots in 2000.

"I probably didn't feel that confident last year going into the Open, but after the first round, I knew the game was there," Oosthuizen said.

The landscape is different now, however, on a links course with so many humps and hollows the ball can bounce anywhere.

The star of golf is no longer Woods, or any American, for that matter. It is all about Rory McIlroy, coming off his eight-shot win in the US Open. Then there is Luke Donald, who won by four shots on Sunday in the Scottish Open to cement his spot at the top of the world rankings. But Oosthuizen is more than just another name in the field.

For one thing, British fans hold a special place in their hearts for their Open champion. Besides, how can anyone ever forget a name like Oosthuizen. Not only did it take longer than most to engrave on the Claret Jug, even after all his success, it is one name in golf that people have trouble pronouncing.

"It's probably more annoying when they say, 'I've been practising it for a month,' and they still get it wrong. No, no, it's fine. I know it's not the easiest surname," he said.

And then there was the announcer at Riviera for the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles. He went to great care to pronounce the name correctly. And he did pronounce it correctly. But at the last second, the starter noticed the "RSA" next to his name to denote the Republic of South Africa.

"Louis Oosthuizen," the starter said. "From Russia."

Even though Oosthuizen had to return the trophy this week, he will always be an Open champion. And although he does nt look for fanfare, he dealt with his notoriety.

"I don't know if 'enjoying' is the right word," he said. "I think it's just how you handle it. If you're going to play well, you're eventually going to be in the spotlight, and it's part of the package. I don't mind it, but it's not a thing that you go out and find. I just take it as it comes, and if I do well and I'm in for it, then it's just another thing I need to be ready for."