The ending to the 2021 major championship season will be a culmination of the theme that has coursed its landscape throughout. Will Louis Oosthuizen win this major championship? is the question that has been asked since the PGA Championship found its heart on Day 2 at Kiawah Island, and it's still being asked two months later as the 149th Open Championship concludes at Royal St. George's on Sunday.
The answer to date has unfortunately been, "No." But this event has been a bit different. Only once has Oosthuizen led outright after either 36 and 54 holes at a major. That was at the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews, which he won. He has again led outright after 36 and 54 holes this week at Royal St. George's, and given how close he's come at other times – six runner-up finishes at majors – and how well he's played in the final round of them all, that is a significant detail.
Oosthuizen shot a 1-under 69 in Round 3 of The Open on Saturday as he went to war against playing partner Collin Morikawa (68) and three-time major winner Jordan Spieth (69). He leads the former by one and the latter by three. For the first time this week, though, Oosty wobbled coming down the stretch. After going out in 33, he bogeyed two of his first four on the back side as Morikawa started raining darts.
Oosthuizen has flushed everything he's looked at all week, but some combination of Morikawa's iron show, a hardening course and the magnitude of Claret Jug No. 2 seemed to wear him down. Holding the solo lead after every round probably didn't help things, either. Still, he hung on, making a 2 on No. 16 and getting it in the house under par for the third straight day. He didn't cede his lead, though it did shrink from two to one.
That was all the easy stuff, though. You probably know the stats by now. Oosthuizen is two strokes from three major, six strokes from five and 12 strokes from seven. He is not a decorated champion, but he's no illusionist either. In his six runner-up finishes, Oosthuizen's scoring average is 69.8.
It's true that he has not won a big one since St. Andrews, but it is not true that he's kicked a bunch away. The unfortunate reality for him is that he's already lost to an all-timer (Phil Mickelson) at the PGA Championship and one who will probably eventually have that label (Jon Rahm) at the U.S. Open this year. The even more unfortunate reality is that he'll have two more staring at him on the final day in Sandwich, England.
"Go one better," he said when asked what he takes from his close calls. "You know, finishing second isn't great, so I will play my heart out tomorrow and see if I can lift the Claret Jug again."
Led outright after rounds 1, 2 and 3 in majors since 2000— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) July 17, 2021
Tiger, 00 U.S.
Tiger, 02 U.S.
Tiger, 05 Open
Rory, 11 U.S.
Kaymer, 14 U.S.
Rory, 14 Open
Spieth, 15 Masters
Koepka, 19 PGA
Garcia, 07 Open
Tiger, 09 PGA
Spieth, 16 Masters
On Sunday morning of the 148th Open Championship, Shane Lowry -- the eventual Champion Golfer of the Year -- asked himself whether he had what it took to be a champion. Oosthuizen already knows the answer to that question, but what he doesn't know (and what we don't know) is whether he has what it takes to be this major champion.
While the outcome may be the same as his previous runner-up finishes, the prelude has been different. Last time he went to Sunday afternoon out in front, he climbed onto his tractor with a Claret Jug on Monday morning.
"I think all of us are just human to think of lifting the trophy, and that's going to be in your mind," said Oosthuizen. "But I think you just need to know it and how to handle it. Once we get on the golf course, it's all golf. You need to believe that you can lift the trophy, as well, and if you think about it beforehand that you might win this championship, I think that's great, and you have to believe you can do it."
Oosthuizen is maybe the coolest customer in the sport. He rolls out of bed to 67s that Spieth would have to swim the English Channel to shoot. Pendulums are covetous of his swing. He's pure, old-school golf -- a flusher in any era with any equipment.
King Louis is as good as it gets.
But surely after being inside the top three after each of the last 10 major championship rounds, even the King is ground down to the nubs. Surely, even somebody whose tank never seems too empty or too full is wondering what's left in there. Surely even this man, who has poured beverages from the Claret Jug and knows it is just 5 pounds worth of silver, will feel its immeasurable weight over the final 18 holes at Royal St. George's.
No matter how it goes on Sunday with Oosty, Morikawa and Spieth, we will close with a final, emphatic answer to the question of what has been an incredible major season. After 15 major rounds in 2021 and the finale upcoming, Oosthuizen has given himself one last opportunity to take home tangible proof that he has, in fact, been the champion golfer of this year.
Here's who can ensure Oosty does not earn that title on Sunday.
Collin Morikawa (1 back)
I'm a bit rattled by the absolute exhibition he put on during that back nine on Saturday. He only shot a 68, but much of that was due to a start that could not have been more slippery. After making bogey at two of the first five holes, I'm not sure he missed a shot the rest of the way.
Morikawa's iron play invoked Johnny Miller's name from Paul Azinger on the broadcast, and it didn't even seem crazy. Rarely does somebody as pure as Oosthuizen look as impotent as he did over the last few hours, but Morikawa ball-struck the life out of him.
The big piece for him on Sunday will be getting off to a better start. The first six holes are maybe the hardest stretch on the course, but if he plays it in even and starts to find his rhythm from deep like Stephen Curry settling into the flow of a game, it's going to be curtains for the King.
Jordan Spieth (3 back)
Well, there was drama. We knew there would be. Spieth completed his second consecutive uninspiring closing kick with a 5-5 finish that literally had him running off the course onto the practice green. The first mistake was a bogey from 77 yards away in the fairway (!) after his second shot into No. 17 got Mutombo'd by the false front. Then he shoved a par putt from no more than 3 feet away nearly into the English Channel.
It was not the door slamming I was envisioning when he went out in 32 and birdied No. 10 as well. And after two straight days of questionable putting on the 18th, his lead on Sunday might have to be three for me to feel good on the home hole. Still, you know he'll be up for the fight in the finale.
Spieth has accomplished too much and come too far to roll over after a 1-2 punch in the face like he took on Saturday evening. It's unlikely that he wins major No. 4 on Sunday, but his soul will be splattered all over Royal St. George's when the words, "See you next year at St. Andrews," are posted on the big board on No. 18. (Oh yeah, and he'll win that one for sure.)
Who else can win?
Scottie Scheffler (4 back), Corey Conners (4 back) and Jon Rahm (5 back) are in striking distance. Scheffler and Conners have combined to win just one PGA Tour event, and it's difficult to see them picking off the last major of the year. Rahm has the same problem they have, too. You can beat one or maybe two of Oosthuizen, Morikawa and Spieth, but can you take down all three major champions on the same day on a course that's probably going to be playing more difficult than it has all week?
Certainly it could happen -- Phil Mickelson came back from five deep to win the 2013 Open, though he only had one major winner (Tiger Woods) in the top three -- but it's unlikely that it will. If Rahm (or anyone beyond the top three) takes the Claret Jug, it will likely take one of the great major championship final rounds in the history of this sport.
Four shots looks like the magic 54-hole number— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) July 17, 2021
94% of Open Champions since 1900 were at/within 4 of lead entering final round
Each of last 31 major winners were within 4 of lead through 54 holes