The first morning of the Open and all eyes were on Shane Lowry, the defending champion, and Jon Rahm, the pre-tournament favourite. Louis Oosthuizen almost sneaked on to the first tee in comparison. But as the players shook hands on the 18th green nearly five hours later, the South African held the clubhouse lead after signing for a six‑under‑par 64, a full seven shots clear of his playing partners and one clear of his nearest challengers, Jordan Spieth and Brian Harman.
Oosthuizen’s sole major win came at the Open Championship in 2010, in which he decimated the rest of the field at St Andrews, winning by seven shots, the largest margin of victory in the Open since Tiger Woods in 2000. Since then he has become something of a nearly man, finishing second in majors on six occasions, including twice this year, at the US Open (behind Rahm) and the PGA Championship (behind Phil Mickelson).
Does this record bother Oosthuizen? “It depends if you lost it or someone else beat you,” he said. “I think in both [the US Open and PGA Championship] I was beaten by better golf at the end there. You have to get over it quickly, otherwise it’s going to hold you back to perform again. Once the week starts, I need to get that out of my mind and just focus on every shot.” Oosthuizen did that here, negotiating a bogey-free round that started with seven pars before a back nine of 31 catapulted him to the top of the standings.
If Oosthuizen started slowly, Lowry began abysmally with two bogeys, twice finding the deepest rough off the tee. It would become a recurring theme for the Irishman. Rahm, who started 7-1 favourite despite losing his No 1 ranking to Dustin Johnson on Monday, did not fare much better.
“That is so bad,” Rahm muttered to himself after his tee shot on the par-three 3rd. The Spaniard became as animated as his bright yellow, cartoon‑themed golf bag as his front nine wore on, with sighs, shrugs and despairing looks to the sky going with every missed chance for birdie and par.
At the 9th, Rahm found himself in a small but steep bunker off the tee, and after failing to get out of the sand with his first attempt, he could only then chip back on to the fairway before making settling for a double‑bogey six. Head bowed, he went past the halfway house in 37.
By the end of the round, Rahm’s dejection had turned to fury, twice shouting “fuck” to the galleries and dropping his club in frustration. After a vital birdie on the 18th, the 26‑year‑old’s one‑over‑par round of 71 feels flattering given his disappointing performance.
Lowry, meanwhile, fluctuated between the ridiculous and the sublime. He has both the experience and the game to defend his title but sloppiness often left him floundering in the long grass. However at the 12th, when pressed up against the patrons on a steep bank with the ball well below his feet and in a tricky lie, Lowry somehow knocked a wedge to a couple of feet for his second birdie. If Will Zalatoris hadn’t holed out for eagle on the same hole early in the day, Lowry’s approach probably would have been shot of the day.
As it is, the best thing you can say about Lowry and Rahm is that they have not quite yet played themselves out of contention, although there could yet be a battle to make the cut on Friday.
In stark contrast, Oosthuizen was metronomic. There were no sensational par saves or remarkable birdies from the rough. In fact, the only time the South African did find himself in the deep stuff, at the par-five 14th, he simply chipped out on to the fairway and hit his next approach stiff to a few feet feet before knocking in for birdie to take his share of the lead.
Oosthuizen hit nearly 80% of his greens in regulation and putted so well that he said afterwards he would consider throwing the rest of his putters at home “into the river”.
Last month, the 38-year-old was making retirement plans after buying an 86-acre ranch in Ocala, Florida to add to the 150-acre farm he owns in South Africa (where he mostly grows hay for his brother, who has a dairy farm next door).
He admitted before this tournament that he “thought this time in my career I’d probably be more wanting to farm” and that “when it’s time and I feel I can’t compete, I’ll hang it up and enjoy life”. On this showing, Oosthuizen might have to keep the clubs out for a little longer, even if life on the farm seems tempting.
“I don’t need to play good or bad to be on the tractor,” he said with a laugh after his blemish-free 64.