In 1457, with England under the inept tutelage of a weak king, Edward VI, the only legitimate son of Henry VIII, a French raiding party made its way to Kent and burned much of the city of Sandwich to the ground. What was left was pillaged under the orders of the Marshal of France, one Pierre De Breze. During the carnage, the Mayor of Sandwich was murdered. Ever since then, for the last 564 years consecutive, the mayor of Sandwich has been obliged to wear a black robe “in mourning for this ignoble deed.”
Should Louis Oosthuizen -- once a record-setting victor in the Open Championship, and at St. Andrews no less, but now the golf world’s Heartbreak Kid -- fail to cash in this third attempt this year to win that elusive second major, it won’t actually be a black cloak of mourning he will wear like some ghastly parody of Augusta National's green jacket, but it will be a terrible metaphoric shroud to weigh him down over the long off-season to come and perhaps, even further beyond.
Oosthuizen’s star-crossed history since his 2010 triumph has been well documented. He’s had six second-places and two more thirds. This will be his seventh appearance in either the final or penultimate pairing on championship Sunday with nigh a victory in all 11 of those long, gut wrenching years. In doing so, he completed a Grand Slam of runner-up finishes.
And each and every one of those has been progressively more tragic.
Now, here at historic, indeed iconic Royal St. George’s, within sight of the noble cliffs of Dover, the battlements of all Britain, Oosthuizen stands atop the Open Championship leaderboard at 12-under 198 after carding three rounds in the 60s. His opening 36-hole score of 129 set the Open Championship record for the first two rounds, and his 69 on Saturday has him one stroke clear of American rising star Collin Morikawa, who won the PGA Championship in 2020 in his first start in that event and who now seeks to equal that amazing feat in his first Open Championship start. Three-time major winner Jordan Spieth – who took home the Claret Jug in 2017 at Royal Birkdale – stands three shots back of Oosthuizen after a 69.
The coming Battle of Britain seems a clash of those headed in opposite directions. Now 38, Louis finds himself with an uncanny ability to spit the bit in the clutch.
The New York Post’s Mark Cannizzaro found astonishing statistical evidence of this phenomenon: In the 2017 Players Championship, Oosthuizen posted 135 for the first 36 holes (69-66), but soared to 146 for the final 36 to finish tied for second.
At the 2019 Masters, he carded 71-66 for 137 in the first two rounds but played the final 36 holes in a disappointing 71-76 for 147. That placed him in a tie for 29th.
And at the PGA in May, he shot 139 for the first two rounds (71-68), but then 72-73 for 145 in the final two rounds. And just last month at the U.S. Open, he shot 138 (67-71) for the first two days, but 141 (70-71) over the final two rounds in bowing late to Spain’s Jon Rahm.
“It’s who seizes the moment,” Morikawa stated succinctly, bringing the subtext straight to the forefront. Lately Louis hasn’t.
At his post-round press conference, Oosthuizen seemed weary from the battle and uncertain about Sunday. It wasn’t the usual frenetic energy of the gladiator longing for the bloodlust of the Coliseum. It also wasn’t stoic confidence. It was the mild message of a man searching for not just victory, but vindication and validation.
“I think if you're someone that really thinks about it all the time, you've got to get your mind off it, do something to keep you busy, do something else,” Oosthuizen stated, looking mildly glazed and tired. “Yeah, I'll get some physio tonight, and probably relax, and tomorrow do the same routine and see if I can play a bit better golf than today. I don't know. I don't really change my routine whether I've got a two-shot lead or I'm trailing by eight.”
Maybe it’s a change of routine that Oosthuizen needs to break out of this swoon, or maybe it’s a change of attitude. He talked about being aggressive, but he sounded passive, not quite haunted, but doubtful.
Morikawa sounds like a champion ready to be crowned. When asked about this being his first Open Championship appearance and could he equal his feat at the PGA in winning that major in his first appearance there Morikawa had the perfect reply.
“I've never been in the position all the previous other times. To be honest, you build a game plan and we see what we need to do all the way the tournament and I stick to it. That is exactly what I am going to try and do tomorrow. Obviously being in a final round at a major is different, but I'm going to try and keep it as similar as possible to every other tournament I've played. Hopefully trust the process and just be committed with that,” he asserted firmly.
Oosthuizen has to get his mind off it. The 24-year old Morikawa is playing video games and Skyping his girlfriend airily. Oosthuizen has got baggage. The kid’s got nothing to lose, so he’s got nothing to fear; he should inhale the pressure, feed off it, transmogrify it and himself to the next level of greatness.
Morikawa’s star is rising. Oosthuizen’s star is still strong, but the window is closing. And with each passing failure, the next needful yearning for victory gnaws harder, as each beckoning trophy becomes ever more elusive.
Jordan Spieth is the X-factor, one of only two other names on the leaderboard with a proven record of going low in huge situations. The three-time major winner survived a golf crucible at Royal Birkdale four years ago, but has been searching for the winner’s circle ever since. Which Spieth will show up tomorrow? The Jordan who closed out the Valero Texas Open in front of adoring home state fans with 67-66 or the Jordan who bogeyed the last two holes today to drop three shots back at 9 under?
Regarding what Spieth are we going to see, it’s likely to be both: Spieth’s monumental talent still leans a bit on a touch of spit shine, duct tape and popsicle sticks, but then again, that’s how to succeed at the Open Championship and at St. George’s in particular, especially if the wind blows.
That’s the wild card: the wind. If it blows hard, back Spieth and Oosthuizen; they have more experience in bad weather. If it’s sunny an shirtsleeves, back Collin and Rahm, one of the precious few who could shoot 65 and set a mark the others might not quote catch.
So as we watch the sun set over the ancient town, Louis in the lead the question burns like a proprietary torch over the 149th Open Championship: Is that exactly where the rest of the field has wants him? Whatever happens to Oosthuizen tomorrow, it won’t be boring. He’ll make sure of that. Is every Oosthuizen birdie or even – gasp! An eagle! – tomorrow just going to make the end that much more tragic? Most pundits, and even most fans are thinking that their hearts may be with Louis, their wallets will back Collin.
Still, the fans have embraced Louis as though he were Mayor of Sandwich. He’ll have that wind filling his sails. They’re praying that Collin, Spieth, nor anybody else will gut him like Sandwich’s mayor in 1457, because that metaphoric black robe will burn like hot pitch. And that nine month wait to tee it up again at a major? It’ll feel like 564 years to Louis.