King Louis takes Open crown
McIlroy left to rue Friday meltdown as Oosthuizen collects Claret Jug
THE coronation of King Louis the First was less than 40 minutes away when Rory McIlroy marched up 18 at St Andrews yesterday with thoughts of what might have been ringing as loudly in his head as the appreciative roar of the biggest gallery in golf.
South African Louis Oosthuizen (27) literally walked away with the Claret Jug, finishing seven strokes clear of his nearest challenger, Lee Westwood, after displaying serene majesty in a final round of 71.
Yet McIlroy faced an horrible irony yesterday as he accepted a €305,536 cheque in a share of third place with Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey ... he actually matched Oosthuizen's winning aggregate of 16-under par with his best three rounds at the 150th British Open.
It's preposterous to suggest the youngster might have shot a level-par 72 instead of the nightmarish 80 he posted at the height of last Friday's howling gales.
Legendary US golf writer Dan Jenkins, a veteran of more than 200 Majors, put it brilliantly when he observed that McIlroy, at the tender age of 21 and playing in only his second British Open as a professional, showed last Friday that he was "too young to know how good a 76 can be".
However, until he inevitably wins his first Major title, McIlroy must live with the knowledge that he'd have put Oosthuizen under considerably more pressure at the weekend had he been able to conserve even a handful of the shots blown away in that fated second round.
"Yep, I couldn't help but think about Friday going up the last hole there," confessed the Holywood youngster, who still deserves immense credit for overcoming the greatest setback of his career to play St Andrews in 69 on Saturday and 68 yesterday.
This preserves his remarkable record of never having shot a round in the 70s at The Home of Golf, while McIlroy equals his highest-ever world ranking, seventh, on the back of his stirring effort at St Andrews. Having started the final round 11 behind Oosthuizen in a tie for 12th with his former Irish amateur team playing partner Shane Lowry, McIlroy was too far back to harbour any hope of catching a super-cool customer like Oosthuizen yesterday.
For sure, he'd equalled the lowest-ever round at the Majors with last Thursday's stunning 63 but the capricious cross-winds which gusted across St Andrews at the weekend ensured McIlroy would be unable to make up sufficient lost ground.
His regret was plain as he said: "You know, if I'd just stuck in a little bit more on Friday, just held it together more, it could have been a different story. But I played the other three rounds very, very solidly and I felt I came back well by shooting seven-under at the weekend."
That was three better than Oosthuizen, who'd avoided the worst of the weather on Friday, when he played some 16 holes of his second round with the wind at his back. Yet the South African, whose first act as Open champion was to wish Nelson Mandela a happy 92nd birthday, was still a deserving winner. Oosthuizen replaces Padraig Harrington as world No 15 and earns €1.011m for his efforts.
McIlroy knows that first Major title might easily have been his, saying: "It's always satisfying to be up there in a Major (he also was third at last year's US PGA). After starting so well, it's a little disappointing I didn't go on to challenge a bit more.
"Friday's not going to give me nightmares," he insisted. "I'm sure I'll wake up in the morning and look at it as just one bad round and take encouragement from being 16-under par for three rounds in The Open at St Andrews."
Asked if he could have handled last Friday's conditions any better, McIlroy shrugged: "I don't know. I think if I'd a day running up to this event that was as windy and actually went out and practised in it, I probably could have handled it a bit better."
McIlroy is a stablemate of Oosthuizen and Westwood at International Sports Management and even ISM owner-founder Chubby Chandler probably would not have nominated the South African as his first Major winner.
Though he'd made the cut in just one of eight previous appearances at golf's Grand Slam championships, Oosthuizen's performance certainly didn't surprise McIlroy or his other European Tour colleagues.
They might call him 'Shrek' but Oosthuizen's rivals have long recognised in him a special talent, as did the golf community in this country following his victory in the 2002 Irish Amateur Open at Royal Dublin.
"We've all regarded Louis as a great player. He hits it great, is technically very sound and does everything well," said McIlroy.
"He just needed that win in March's Open de Andalucia to give him that little bit of confidence to challenge for bigger events.
"Genuinely," McIlroy added, "he's one of the nicest guys on tour. Louis and his wife have had a new baby, Jana, this year, so he's in a pretty good place at this minute."
Oosthuizen led Casey by four strokes with Martin Kaymer and Henrik Stenson one further back going into the final round but, crucially, all his rivals, including Westwood, who stalled badly in the early stages, allowed the South African settle nicely into the most intense round of his life.
Few will be more disappointed than Casey after his frustrating final round 75, while for Westwood it was another close call as he registered his fourth top-three finish in his last five Majors.
Tiger Woods played once again yesterday with the Scotty Cameron putter he'd used to win 13 of his 14 Major titles but still performed poorly on the greens. The world No 1 had two double-bogey sixes in a round of 72 which left him tied 23rd on three-under but still said: "I feel satisfaction in the sense that I drove it on a string all week and hit my irons pretty good but, other than the first day, I didn't putt it well."
Among the most satisfied men leaving St Andrews last night were Clara's Shane Lowry and Athlone's Colm Moriarty, who completed their first Open Championship in a tie for 37th place on one-under par.