Saturday 16 December 2017

Fear of Tiger opened major door for Oosthuizen

The new breed of players can get over the Woods factor, writes Dermot Gilleece

Up to last weekend, only the name of Tiger Woods came immediately to mind when considering huge margins of victory in the major championships in the modern game. And intriguingly, it may be that the enduring world No 1 also had a significant hand in this latest procession, from Louis Oosthuizen.

If the opposition are doing even a half-decent job, it really shouldn't be possible for a player of Oosthuizen's pedigree to achieve such dominance at that level. Sure, there was an admirable winning aggregate of 16-under par in trying, windy conditions. These sort of figures are a lot more accessible, however, when the opposition disappear into the dust.

So, what really happened over the Old Course? Unquestionably, Oosthuizen benefited hugely from the luck of the draw. Indeed, I retain a vivid image of Graeme McDowell's obvious concern when he saw that the South African commanded the leaderboard on 12-under par, after enjoying the best of the weather on Friday morning.

But it's not quite that simple. In 1984 on the Old Course, for instance, Ian Baker-Finch led the championship, three strokes clear of Nick Faldo and the eventual winner, Seve Ballesteros, at the half-way stage. And two years prior to that, Bobby Clampett was a full seven strokes clear of eventual champion Tom Watson at the same point at Troon.

Both Baker-Finch and Clampett were so engulfed by the quality of the chasing pack that they eventually finished ninth and tenth respectively. While I'm not suggesting that Oosthuizen would have buckled so dramatically, the fact is that no comparable pressure ever materialised.

When the South African headed for bed on Friday night as the 36-hole leader by five strokes, he would hardly have been fretting at the prospect of being joined by 50-year-old Mark Calcavecchia in the final pairing on Saturday. Jean Van de Velde would have had a decidedly different perspective when he led by five strokes after 54 holes at Carnoustie in 1999.

Paul Lawrie, of course, came from 10 back to win that particular staging after a play-off. Paul Casey, on the other hand, had the far more manageable gap of four strokes to make up on a St Andrews novice last Sunday. Those such as Martin Kaymer (seven back) and Henrik Stenson, Alejandro Canizares and Lee Westwood (all eight adrift), needed serious help from the leader to stand a chance.

So where does Woods, who was 12 strokes back incidentally, fit into all of this? The answer, I believe, is in the remarkably candid admission that Pádraig Harrington made about Woods' 15-stroke win in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach, when he said: "There were a lot of golf shots hit that week that everybody else in the field had to acknowledge: 'We can't do that'."

With this and subsequent major performances of stunning supremacy, Woods seemed to inflict huge and protracted mental and emotional damage on a very significant group of leading players. Much has been made of the impact on Ernie Els in particular, but others were similarly damaged.

It is not without significance that Casey turned professional in the autumn of 2000. And that from a situation of having won no fewer than 14 European Tour events and 10 other international events from 1996 to 2000 inclusive, Westwood's career suddenly hit a wall. One constructed by Woods? Evidence to that effect is compelling.

Damaged irreparably by Woods. How else can one explain a player of Casey's undoubted ability as the winner of 10 European titles along with last year's Houston Open being incapable of pressurising an unproven challenger such as Oosthuizen? Instead of rocking the South African's confidence by holing a four-footer for birdie at the first, he squandered a golden opportunity and was no more than a pleasant, thoroughly sporting playing partner from then on.

Oosthuizen has not been damaged by Woods. Neither has McDowell. Nor Rory McIlroy. That much was evident in a fascinating little incident on the putting green at St Andrews. Having heard of Woods' change of putter from the trusty blade he had employed for 11 years, McIlroy walked over and took the implement from its owner, presumably after "can I have a look", or something to that effect.

His curiosity satisfied, McIlroy handed the putter back with a shrug. Not a hint of the deference the damaged ones would have shown. To McIlroy, Woods is just another competitor who commands respect, not fear.

Oosthuizen won the Open because he had the skill to create a winning position for himself and the admirable competitive instincts to ride his good fortune. He, McIlroy, McDowell, Ryo Ishikawa and America's Rickie Fowler are part of a new breed who are more likely to generate fear in Woods, should he eventually return to form.

Sunday Independent

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