THE OPEN AT ST ANDREWS
TWO OF SOUTH AFRICA’S BRIGHTEST STARS IN WORLD GOLF, LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN AND CHARL SCHWARTZEL, NO LONGER APPEAR TO BE A FORCE IN THE GAME.
WHAT’S GONE WRONG WITH LOUIS & CHARL?
FIVE YEARS AGO LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN WALKED UP THE 18TH HOLE OF THE OLD COURSE with a seven-shot lead in the Open Championship. He became the first South African to win the claret jug at St Andrews, the home of golf, since Bobby Locke triumphed in 1957. Oosthuizen’s moment of glory provided the inspiration for Charl Schwartzel to slip into a Masters green jacket nine months later. Fast forward to 2015, however, a time when they should be in the prime of their careers – Oosthuizen is 32 and Schwartzel 30 – and we find they are actually going significantly backwards in the game. They are no longer among the best 30 players in the world, their progress having been plagued by a combination of off-course and short game issues. Despite having been based in America since the start of 2011, neither has won on the PGA Tour in more than four years.The question has to be asked: Are they major championship one-hit wonders? South Africans worship their sporting idols. We are fiercely patriotic and love to cheer our compatriots on the world stage.We had Nick Price, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen winning nine majors between them in a 20-year spell from 1992 to 2012.Their successes have led us to expect a great deal from our new young stars, believing that they will emulate their own heroes.
At first, everything seemed on track. Our most promising youngsters looked built from the same mould.Trevor Immelman won the Masters in 2008, Oosthuizen the Open in 2010, and Schwartzel the Masters in 2011. But only Louis, and just on the one occasion, has contended for another major since those victories, when he lost a playoff to Bubba Watson at the 2012 Masters. Even more surprisingly, none of them have since won on the PGA Tour. It’s almost as if, having achieved their goals of winning a major, they have now put their careers on cruise control.
Before Oosthuizen, the last player to win the Open and fail to win a tournament in America was the dour Scot, Paul Lawrie, a journeyman pro who has mainly plied his trade on the European Tour. Oosthuizen, at No 31, remains the highest ranked South African on the Official World Golf Ranking, but 25 years have passed since we didn’t have a South African player in the top 30.
Schwartzel, in 73 PGA Tour appearances since winning the Masters, has only recorded two top-3 finishes. Oosthuizen was twice a runner-up on the PGA Tour in 2012 (the Masters and Deutsche Bank Championship), but in 76 PGA Tour appearances since winning the Open, he has recorded a total of three top-3s. Ernie Els, in his PGA Tour career of 396 events, has had 54 top-3s.
Golfers have generally been sympathetic towards our young players, hoping that the tide will turn, but as the years go by the question is being increasingly raised in golf clubs around the country:What has happened to Louis and Charl that they no longer appear capable of winning in America?
To try and answer this question, I approached several people in the local golf industry, asking them to comment on what they thought was contributing to the decline of our two young stars. However, while they were all quick to offer an opinion, they chose to speak off the record, not wishing to incur the displeasure of either player or their respective management companies.
I noted their comments and also asked two of Golf Digest’s most experienced and respected writers – American Jaime Diaz and Scot John Huggan, who cover the major tournaments every year – for their impressions.They were at least prepared to put their names to quotes.
“From what I hear from players and coaches, Louis and Charl have opposite problems which affect them,” said Diaz. “Louis cares too little and Charl cares too much. I’m sure that is way oversimplified, but it’s a good starting point.”
Huggan’s immediate reply: “Those are two of the best swings in golf, but they’ve kind of just drifted along the last few years. Something must be wrong.”
Everyone I spoke to was unanimous in saying, firstly, that off-course issues – Oosthuizen’s injuries since winning the Open, and Schwartzel’s dysfunctional family life – is affecting their play. Secondly, the opinion was that their short games are not sharp enough to compete with the best in the game at present.
Current PGA Tour statistics confirm that observation. This year, Schwartzel ranks 179th and Oosthuizen 154th in Strokes Gained Putting. From 75-100 yards from the green, Schwartzel is 193rd and Oosthuizen 81st. In Scrambling, Charl ranks 131st and Louis 64th. Both are unable to get up and down more than 60 percent of the time they miss a green in regulation. It’s no wonder that Schwartzel’s scoring average on the 2015 PGA Tour is just 72, which ranks him 162.
“There is a definite trend on tour right now,” says Diaz. “It doesn’t matter how well you hit it, the short game and putting is more important than ever. And I don’t think Charl and Louis are much better than average with the putter and wedge.” Huggan agrees, stating that modern technology has brought players closer together, and to excel today these two specialist clubs have to outperform the rest.
Oosthuizen has endured a torrid time with injuries. Following his Open victory, back home on a game drive, he tore ligaments in his left ankle after stepping into a hole while climbing out of a 4x4. Oosthuizen also has a history of back problems. With the commercial demands of being Open champion, he admits now to returning to the game too early. Without being conscious of it at the time, he started compensating in his swing for the weak ankle, which placed new strains on his balky lower back.
Oosthuizen was No 6 in the world at the end of the 2012 season, thanks to two European Tour victories and a playoff loss to Bubba Watson at the Masters. But 2013 was a forgettable year where he missed the cut at Augusta National and then withdrew (after starting) because of back issues from both the US Open and Open. He failed to tee up at the PGA – a neck injury on that occasion.
Two new physiotherapists provided a breakthrough for him towards the end of 2014. Oosthuizen first of all visited Allen Gruver in Phoenix, Arizona, who helped align his body into a more comfortable position. He now works with Englishman Kevin Duffy on a weekly basis when on tour. “Louis is now able to finally play pain-free, after an inconsistent two years in that respect, which makes it easier to plan his schedule,” said manager Louis Martin of International Sports Management, after Oosthuizen had reached the quarterfinals of the WGC Match Play in San Francisco in May.
Schwartzel’s off-course problems are more sensitive in that they evidently involve close family members. Sources indi- cate that since Charl and wife Rosalind were married in 2010, his relationship with his parents, particularly father George, a former Sunshine Tour pro himself, is not nearly as close as it was. When Charl moved away from the family farm outside Vereeniging, he chose to build a home at the exclusive Blair Atholl estate close to Johannesburg. A rift allegedly exists between the in-laws. Charl’s father-in-law Brian Jacobs, a PGA club pro from Meyerton, which adjoins Vereeniging, is now involved in managing Charl’s golf.
Diaz believes that if a golfer is going through off-course issues, it’s difficult to have a clear mind during competitive play. “It’s tough to separate golf and life. Stuff is complicated, no one is immune,” he says. “There is such a fine line between confidence and pressure. Charl has a beautiful golf swing, but if you’re nervous, bad things can happen. Greg Norman got nervous, Tiger now gets nervous.”
Schwartzel has appeared edgy and tense on the course the last two years and has rapidly developed a reputation among the public and media as being dour and downbeat. His body language doesn’t look good. Since winning the Masters his only victories on the European Tour have come in the low-key Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek, which he won in 2012 and 2013.While he produced magical golf on those occasions (he was a cumulative 41 under par), he has failed to capture the same confidence elsewhere. Seemingly set to win the SA Open at Glendower in January, he blew a four-shot lead on the back nine, and subsequently lost a playoff to Englishman Andy Sullivan, ranked 149 in the world. Schwartzel’s 20-metre-wide push with a sixiron on the par-3 17th was an extraordinary miss.
Schwartzel, to his credit, at least plays regularly in the SA Open in an attempt to win his country’s national championship, but Oosthuizen hasn’t teed up in the Open since the 2010 tournament at Durban CC.
“With his slender build, I feel like Charl has to swing really hard to get it out there,” Diaz remarks. “He’s not as smooth as he once was and often appears very tense.”
Now ranked No 44 in the world, another concern regarding Schwartzel is his high turnover of caddies. Since winning the Masters with fellow South African Greg Hearmon on the bag, he has used
Glen Murray (now back with Sergio Garcia), and more recently Rosalind and friends Albert Kruger (at the Masters) and Richard Maree.
Nick Faldo has commented several times on TV broadcasts that he sees Schwartzel burning the edge of the hole more than most. Is he simply mis-reading putts? n industry source close to the players also raises a pertinent point about modern pros. How motivated are they to keep grinding away when they become rich very early in their careers? Schwartzel has earned $9.4 million in prizemoney alone on the PGA Tour and Oosthuizen $8.1 million. “After you acquire your third house and have offcourse hobbies, golf becomes a bit of a chore,” says a prominent teaching pro. “I really don’t think they actually enjoy the game anymore. They prepare well for the majors, and get amped up for that, but that’s not really enough is it?”
Legendary American football college coach Bear Bryant would say, “It’s not the will to win that matters – everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare.”
Diaz agrees that the landscape has changed dramatically since the 1980s and ’90s when pros played more tournaments. “You don’t have to win anymore.The money is so big that by being a top-50 player you lead a very comfortable life. It’s become a problem for the tours, because these days just showing up is a big deal, even at huge-money events like World Golf Championships.”
It seemed odd that neither Schwartzel nor Oosthuizen played in the European Tour’s recent flagship event at Wentworth, the BMW PGA Championship, considering they are honorary life members of the tour, thanks to their major victories. All the other top South Africans were in the field.
Oosthuizen is a laid back character who supposedly likes nothing more than driving his tractor and spending time on the family farm near Albertinia in the Southern Cape. It’s a lifestyle comparable perhaps to the legendary Byron Nelson, who retired from the game at 34 to become a Texas rancher. However, Nelson did have 64 wins by then, including five majors.
Famed English teaching pro Pete Cowan, who has worked frequently with Oosthuizen, told Sports Illustrated South Africa magazine some years ago, “If Louis had Charl’s work ethic, he’d be as good as Rory.”
The short game stats don’t lie. If there has been a lessening of their work ethic it usually shows up in how sharp they are around the greens. And at present they are particularly blunt.
Charl and Louis, who grew up playing amateur golf together – they were in the same South African team at the 2002 world team championships – have always motivated each other, and responded positively to each other’s successes. With Oosthuizen seemingly turning a corner with his fitness, if he wins again soon it could inspire Schwartzel to exit his slump.
Huggan, and other people I spoke to, warned Golf Digest about the risk of distressing Oosthuizen and Schwartzel by running this story, but the issue needs to be discussed. Huggan himself made a decision to say in print that Colin Montgomerie cheated during the 2005 Indonesian Open, and Monty has not spoken to him since. While this article is not making claims like that, players can react in varied ways to criticism.
Golf Digest would like nothing more than to report on their comeback victories, which we believe are likely to occur before too long. But at present we feel a responsibility to provide analysis on the current problems with their games and their lives.