Oosthuizen keeps his head for heights

Outsider manages to shoulder the burdens of history and expectation to stay in contention on a testing evening
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The Independent Online

Louis Oosthuizen leads The Open. Even if he never hears it said again, the 27-year-old South African has woken up on two mornings here at the Home of Golf to see his name at the top of the leaderboard, and yesterday he confounded all those who thought he would crumple under the burden – yes, the burden – of taking a five-shot lead into the third round. That lead was cut by one, but Oosthuizen played splendidly for his round of 69, and now the £850,000 question is whether he will wake up tomorrow morning with the Claret Jug next to his bed.

The portents are pretty good. Six times in the past 10 years the winner has been a man who has finished the third round either with the outright lead or a share of it. Admittedly in 2000, 2005 and 2006 that man was Tiger Woods. And admittedly, too, there have been plenty of 54-hole leaders of The Open whose names became mere footnotes in golfing history, such as Bobby Clampett, who led after every round but the all-important last one at Royal Troon in 1982, and poor old Jean van de Velde at Carnoustie in 1999.

Oosthuizen has an additional problem, in that the past weighs more heavily at St Andrews than anywhere else. Every time there is an Open here, at least one so-called expert suggests that the venerable Old Course, with its wide fairways, double greens and driveable par-fours, has become an anachronism in the power-hitting world of modern golf. The implication is that just about anyone can string together four good rounds on such a course, and yet somehow or other these remarkable links have, for the past 40 years, always thrown up a big-name winner.

Since 1970, of the men who have hoisted the Claret Jug in front of the R&A clubhouse, only John Daly in 1995 did not bestride the game like a colossus. He just was a colossus. And, of course, he already had a major title under his prodigious belt. The others are Jack Nicklaus (twice), Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods (twice).

So in recent decades there has never been a journeyman winner here such as, with respect, Ben Curtis (the winner at Royal St George's in 2003) or Todd Hamilton (who triumphed the following year at Troon). Or Oosthuizen, indeed. Not that he will be a journeyman for long if he continues to rise to the big occasion as he did yesterday.

"It's just a case of believing in myself," he said last night, adding that he had received a good luck phone call from Ernie Els before his round, and was expecting a call from "Mr Player" before he went to bed.

Neither Els nor Gary Player ever won The Open at St Andrews, though, and it's a fair bet that young Oosthuizen felt the burden of history bearing down on his slight shoulders as he set off down the first fairway. If so, he duly showed some early signs of buckling under its formidable weight, missing a shortish putt for par after a heavy-handed approach shot over the Swilcan Burn, followed by a clumsy first putt.

It was an entirely predictable start to the championship's penultimate round. No matter what statistic Oosthuizen had cared to look at over the breakfast table yesterday, he must have known that he was in intimidatingly illustrious company.

His marvellous 36-hole score of 132 had been matched by only two men in all 27 Opens to have taken place at St Andrews: Nick Faldo and Greg Norman in 1990. And if he cared to go back a little further, the only other South African to win at the Home of Golf was the stylish Bobby Locke, four times an Open champion and one of the greatest putters of all time.

Locke won here in 1957 despite (or perhaps because of) his habit of retiring to the bar of the St Andrews Golf Club every night, where, after he had sunk several pints of heavy, he would serenade the assembled company with a lusty version of "I belong tae Glasgow".

Oosthuizen was playing with Mark Calcavecchia, who after an outward nine of 43 – including a quadruple-bogey nine on the long fifth – looked as if he too would prefer to be sinking a few pints of heavy in the bar of the St Andrews Golf Club, although probably not serenading anyone, at least not with anything pleasant.

Oosthuizen, meanwhile, had recovered impressively from that early wobble with a string of pars and then a timely birdie at the seventh to return to 12 under par and maintain a two-stroke lead over an inspired Paul Casey in the group ahead. He birdied the ninth too, and stayed at 13-under by holing a series of seemingly nerveless putts before extending his lead with an extraordinary 50-footer on the 16th.

The advantage of the Old Course's enormous double-greens is that even a wayward shot can end up on the putting surface, but Oosthuizen might have preferred a pitch-and-run to the vast putt that confronted him after a badly pulled approach. Somehow, though, after taking about four changes of direction, it dropped.

Oosthuizen then finished par-birdie, narrowly missing an eagle at the 18th after driving the green. The indications were that he could, after all, cope with the burden of history.