British challenge fades in face of total dominance

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The Independent Online

The shortish, wiry fellow in the dazzling white trousers won the Open yesterday, but unfortunately for British golf fans it was the wrong one. Paul Casey, of strikingly similar stature to Louis Oosthuizen and in strikingly similar clobber, simply could not reel in his playing partner, never closing the gap to less than three shots, and watching the South African become all but uncatchable. Casey's situation was not helped by perhaps the least timely triple-bogey he will ever record, on the par-four 12th hole following an errant drive into an unforgiving clump of gorse.

Ahead of them, with a steady 70, Lee Westwood bagged the runners-up spot yet again in big-time golf, a terrific effort from a man operating on only one healthy leg, although neither that, nor a £500,000 cheque, will come as much consolation as another major slips by.

Vijay Singh's painful jibe that British golfers operate too much within their comfort zone has been tested by Westwood, Casey, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and several others these past couple of years. But, in the end, the much-vaunted British challenge here was simply a challenge for second place. McIlroy finished joint-third with a fine 68 (meaning, somewhat bizarrely, that the young Ulsterman has still never registered a round in the 70s around the Old Course, with 11 scores in the 60s and one of 80), and joining him, along with Sweden's Henrik Stenson, was Casey. Arguably, the Brit who ended the weekend happiest was Colin Montgomerie, the European Ryder Cup captain, who saw four likely members of his team wind up rather closer to the top of the leaderboard than any American.

Meanwhile, a share of third place comfortably represents Casey's highest finish in the majors, with sixth place in the 2006 US Masters his previous best and only one top-10 in the Open before this year. But those statistics will offer meagre comfort as he reflects on his inability to push his young South African friend to the wire.

He gave himself an early opportunity to do so, knocking his second shot on the opening hole to within four feet. It was a stirring statement of intent from a man who had birdied the first three holes in each of the two previous rounds, but Casey's birdie effort lacked conviction. The response from the gallery was mixed, for in truth there was at least as much partisanship behind the ropes for the South African as for the Englishman, perhaps even more judging by the volume of the encouragement in loud, guttural Afrikaans that accompanied Oosthuizen most of the way down the first fairway. This was matched by the volume of his supporters' trousers, nearly all of them in the vibrant colours of the South African flag. It was a mercy, and frankly a surprise, that none of them had smuggled in a vuvuzela.

Despite the boisterous South African presence, there was also, in the turbulent St Andrews air, a palpable desire for someone to give Oosthuizen a run for his £850,000 and, for much of the afternoon, Casey remained the man best placed, with nobody ahead of the final pair posting much of a challenge, except Westwood and, fleetingly, Germany's Martin Kaymer – but that was when Oosthuizen was more or less out of sight. Maybe a bit of animosity would have helped Casey apply his fingers to the runaway leader's jugular, or at least a bit less generous conviviality. "The balls are starting to shake, aren't they?" he ventured when they reached the second tee, after Oosthuizen had backed off his par putt because of a sudden strengthening of the wind. This might have been a subtle little stab of gamesmanship, to make the younger man a little more hesitant over his putts, but it was more likely a kindly expression of solidarity. And a few minutes later he was even more obliging, bogeying the second to afford Oosthuizen yet more comfort at the top of the leaderboard.

Even in the knowledge that his life could be about to change for ever, the 27-year-old from the Western Cape was swinging confidently, putting nervelessly and utterly belying his world ranking of 54. Casey, ranked 10th in the world, manifestly needed to produce something special. On Saturday he had done just that, with five birdies in a brilliant outward nine of 31, but yesterday the magic appeared to have been carried away on the west wind.

On the long fifth he had a glimmer of a chance to reduce Oosthuizen's lead, with an eagle putt that would have seemed formidably long on just about every other putting surface in the world, but looked almost makeable on a green, shared with the 13th, that could practically accommodate a full-scale football pitch. Instead, he three-putted for a measly par, although a birdie on the sixth, followed by a rare Oosthuizen bogey on the par-3 eighth, briefly gave the British fans a flicker of hope that one of their own might yet end up lifting the Claret Jug for the first time since Paul Lawrie 11 years ago. Yet no sooner had the hope flickered than it was extinguished, with Oosthuizen eagling the ninth. And then came Casey's collapse at the 12th, after which the BBC graphics department were turning their attention to the biggest winning margins in Open championship history, and Oosthuizen's journey back towards the auld grey toun was rendered something of a procession.