Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Great Day for South Africa

Across the pond early Sunday evening, Louis Oosthuizen celebrated his coming out party.  The affable, 27-year-old South African with a gap-toothed smile, convincingly shattered the rest of the field on the Old Course at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland, to win the 2010 Open Championship, golf's biggest prize.  Oosthuizen (pronounced WUHST-hay-zen) shot a final-round 71 for a four-round total of 272, and won by eight strokes over his nearest competitor, Lee Westwood of England.

Oosthuizen, from Mosul Bay, South Africa, became the fourth South African to win the Open.  His wife, Nel-Mare, and daughter, Jana, joined the celebration on the 18th green of the Old Course afterward.  Oosthuizen hoisted the Claret Jug trophy and walked around the perimeter of the 18th hole posing for the gallery, occasionally kissing it for good effect, with the same confidence and enthusiasm that earned him his first major championship of his career.

Indeed, Sunday was a great day for South Africa, coming a week after Johannesburg successfully hosted the World Cup soccer final between Spain and Holland that capped a month of brilliant sport and served as a wonderful platform for broadening the nation's cultural awareness. Sunday also marked the 92nd birthday of Nelson Mandela, the first South African president to be elected in a fully representative democratic election.  Finally, South Africa has been in the news a lot lately for all of the right reasons.

What makes Oosthuizen's story all the more remarkable is that he grew up the son of a sheep farmer, received help from the Ernie Els Foundation just to be able to afford golf clubs, and has spent the past several years knocking around the European PGA Tour with modest success.  So, while American audiences were expecting a great result from Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, the unfamiliar Oosthuizen put together a wonderful charge over four days, including a 40-foot eagle putt on the 352-yard ninth hole during the final round, to seal his victory. He finished the tournament 16 strokes under par.

The soft-spoken Oosthuizen, who is white, leaned on his caddy, Zack Rasego, who is black, for sound advice.  Like Oostenhuizen, Rasego grew up poor in South Africa, too, the oldest of six kids.  He began caddying as a kid in the resort town of Sun City to escape poverty and help support his family. Oosthuizen and Rasego not only speak a common language, Afrikaans, they have been a "rainbow team" on the links for seven years, putting the color of their skin aside and looking at each other as human beings. 

After Oosthuizen drained the final putt of the Open Championship, he and Rasego shared a warm, congratulatory hug that was beamed on television for all of the world to enjoy. Winning the Open Championship was a coronation for both, and the Old Course at the Royal and Ancient resembled a regal walk in the park.

ESPN's Rick Reilly noted afterward that the days in which a white golfer and a black caddy together feeling uncomfortable have passed.  No more raising eyebrows or causing discontent. Oosthuizen and Rasego can thank Mandela for helping to foster reconciliation and racial harmony in their home country.  "They were two men with one goal, achieving a dream," commented Reilly.

In accepting his prize, Oosthuizen thanked Mandela and wished him a happy birthday.  "What he's done for our country is unbelievable," said Oosthuizen. "So happy birthday to him once again."

For South Africa, Sunday was a day to celebrate the good health of an old hero, the good fortune of a new hero, and the caddy who helped this new hero achieve glory.  For the rest of us, we're just happy to have been a witness to it all.

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