Louis Oosthuizen best bet to end SA Major drought at Augusta
There was a stage at the turn of the decade when four different South Africans won four Majors in the space of five years and it seemed the golfing world was in the midst of an African surge.
But since Ernie Els won the 2012 Open Championship at the age of 42 no less, South Africans have experienced a six-year Major drought.
Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, who won the 2010 Open and 2011 Masters respectively, were expected to win at least a few more of golf’s elite titles each.
Yet, here we are at the starting line of the 83rd staging of the Masters at Augusta, the season’s first Major, and it is unlikely that a South African will receive the green jacket in Butler cabin on Sunday.
Els, 49, is not in the field after his five-year exemption for winning the Open expired in 2017. At the back end of his career on the main global tours, Els has not been able to climb into the world’s top 50, which secures a place at Augusta.
But the Els family will be represented at Augusta when Ernie’s nephew Jovan Rebula makes his debut at the tournament thanks to his status as British amateur champion.
Rebula’s main focus will just be making the cut and trying to win the prize for low amateur. His swing is uncannily like a young Els and if you passed Rebula on the range and saw it, you would be forgiven for thinking you had gone back to a time when his uncle was among the top three in the world.
Unlike Els, Schwartzel, as a previous Masters winner, has a lifetime exemption to Augusta, which at this stage is just as well. The satin-swinging Schwartzel missed the cut in 2018 but came third in 2017.
The 34-year-old’s ranking has plummeted to 104 in the world, the first time he has been out of the top 100 since 2008. It is hard to picture Schwartzel staging a charge for the title, but he is not too old and has shown his liking for the course.
Oosthuizen remains SA’s best bet for the green jacket. Now 36, Oosthuizen’s beautifully liquid swing sometimes suffers due to back issues, but there have been no signs of discomfort in recent weeks.
At his best, Oosthuizen remains a huge threat on a course where he lost a play-off to Bubba Watson in 2012 and added a tie for 12th in 2018. He also had back-to-back top fives on the PGA Tour coming into this week, so his form is solid.
With time and opportunities running out, hopefully Oosthuizen can seize his good form and get the putter glowing hot on Augusta’s famously fast greens.
Branden Grace certainly has the game to win a Major, which a 62 at the Open a few years back demonstrated, but his low ball flight is not conducive to dealing with Augusta’s rapid greens. Players who hit the ball high and land it softly tend to prosper at Augusta.
The only other real contender in the six-man SA contingent is Justin Harding, who fought his way into the world’s top 50. When last Monday’s rankings came out, Harding had crept into 49th and as a result earned his place at Augusta on the day invites closed.
He won the Qatar Masters on the European Tour in March, which vaulted him up the rankings, and then tied for second at the Kenya Open, which was enough to propel him into the top 50.
No rookie has won the Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller exactly 40 years ago. A Harding win would be a surprise to most, but four tournament wins in the past 10 months indicates a man who knows how to get the job done.
The sixth and final SA competitor is 39-year-old Trevor Immelman, who like Schwartzel is in the field courtesy of being a previous winner. The 2008 champion’s career fell off a cliff due to injuries and these days he is a part-time golfer and part-time commentator.