Apr
10
2012
Masters Sunday in an Augusta sitting room
By Stephanie Wei under The Masters

Louis' consolation prize: an albatross, only the fourth in Masters history

I spent Sunday afternoon in the sitting room in between the locker room and the Grill Room at Augusta National and watched most of the final round with Louis Oosthuizen’s family and management. Defending champion Charl Schwartzel and his Green Jacket even showed up around the 12th hole. So did Bubba Watson’s agent Jens Beck.

Interesting enough, WUP’s special contributor Brendan Prunty and I unknowingly switched places. At the end of regulation, I headed back to the press center, while Brendan wandered into the same room and observed the final 90 minutes with Team Louis.

After Phil Mickelson pulled a Phil launched his tee shot on the par-3 No. 4 nearly over the back-left grandstands into the shrubbery, resulting in a triple-bogey, to drop to five-under, four shots back of Louis Oosthuizen, who surged to the top of the leaderboard after scoring one of the rarest shots in golf, an albatross (or double-eagle as we use in America interchangeably).

From 253 yards on the par-5 No. 2, the 29-year-old South African hit a beautiful 4-iron that landed on the front of the green and then made its way toward the back pin. Sixteen seconds later, it rolled straight in the cup, recording the first-ever albatross on No. 2 and the fourth-ever in Masters history.

The usual even-keel golfer threw his arms in the air joyously and celebrated like, well, as if he’d just done the near impossible. After picking the ball out of the cup, he flipped it into the crowd (which was later “donated” back to ANGC by the lucky fan — sorry, patron — who caught it.)

Still high on adrenaline, he bogeyed the following hole, which was understandable.

“It was the first shot (I’d seen him make like that) and we’ve been married for five years and together for seven or eight years,” said his wife Nel-Mare Oosthuizen, as she cradled their second child Sophia, who was born on February 1.

Ever since, he’s performed consistently.

“He takes everything in his stride,” said Martin Hardy, the press agent for Oosthuizen’s management company, ISM, which is headed by Chubby Chandler. “He has a nice level balance. He doesn’t get too far down there and too far up there. In fact, when he had that albatross, he was as excited as I’ve seen him on the golf course.”

At this point in the day, Louis, playing alongside the eventual champ Bubba Watson, was still on the front nine of Augusta National.

***

Nel-Mare (with baby Sophia in her arms and eventually their first daughter Jana, who is two-years-old), Louis’ mother Mienie and father Piet, Hardy, and Louis Martin, Oosthuizen’s direct agent, along with other members of his management team, were camped out in the sitting room located in between the locker room and the Grill Room. It also happened to be conveniently located next to the “flash area,” where interviews are conducted (unless the player is brought to the official interview room in the press center). What’s more, there’s a flatscreen TV mounted on the wall, a desk with a computer that shows the leaderboard, stats, and various TV feeds (every seat in the press room has its own), a large couch, several armchairs and old-school wooden seats.

You know, I noticed this area on Saturday when I spent most of the day speaking to players and isolated from what was happening on the golf course. As I’m sure you’re aware, we’re not allowed to have our phones, so we’re completely cut off (which puts us in a strange position sometimes if a guy has a good round and then doubles the last hole). Usually there’s a Masters press person around to ask, but it was pure mayhem on Saturday and I couldn’t really tell you what had happened. I knew I was going to be doing a lot of reporting and ambushing for SI in the final round, so it seemed like a good place to hang around.

***

When I first walked in the area, I headed toward the locker room to track down Rory McIlroy for insights on Louis, Peter Hanson and Padraig Harrington, who were all in contention at the time (remember Rory teed off nearly three hours earlier). The security guard asked if I was going in there and I said, yes. She politely requested to scan my credential — if I didn’t mind — and make sure everyone was “proper” (because so many players take showers afterward!), calling out to a male security guard. The security lady was very nice and professional, though. I mean, the red carpet was basically laid out, which didn’t surprise me after last year’s unfortunate misunderstanding.

Rory was still outside, so I waited in the sitting room, which was empty at the time. When the U.S. Open champ walked in, he said to me jokingly something like, “You’re not allowed in the locker room, are you?!?” Then he referenced last year’s debacle when reporters followed him in after his final-round meltdown. Kind of a similar scenarios, except this time I was the only reporter and Rory shot his way out of contention on Saturday.

You know what I love about McIlroy? He could have shot 66 or 76 — I couldn’t tell (nor did I ask), but he doesn’t necessarily change his demeanor, and regardless of his play, he’s always helpful when dealing with the press.

“I saw Louis make 2 on the second and I was thinking, how cool would it be for Charl to put the green jacket on Louis?” said Rory. “For me, it’d be nice to see Louis win. He’s a friend of mine and a nice guy…he has one of the smoothest swings on Tour.

“G-Mac played with him the first two days and said he was playing really well, and obviously he is. He’s a happy guy and he’s in a good place, and I think when you’re in a good place off the golf course, it allows you to play well on the golf course.”

I walked back out, thankful I didn’t have to deal with any humiliating/awkward situations. Well done, ANGC. (It’s much more awkward for me than the guys to go in there.)

At this point, the sitting room had become much more crowded, with Nel-Mare and her mother-in-law setting up a makeshift baby area on the couch. Louis was there. So was Hardy. Other players and wives came and left, but the Oosthuizens had made camp. Oh, I also ran into Graeme McDowell and his girlfriend Kristin, who was kind enough to point out Nel-Mare to me.

***

Martin Hardy looked comfortably situated in an armchair next to the fireplace, but he was more than happy to talk with me about Oosthuizen, who was playing either No. 7 or 8.

“(Louis) had an injury that set him back (after he won the Open Championship at St. Andrews in 2010 and he didn’t quite get back into it until the end of last year,” he explained. “He’s steadily been coming in since the end of last year.

“What’s it Geoff Ogilvy said? ‘It’s not amazing Louis Oosthuizen has won a major, it’s amazing he hasn’t won more because technically he has the best swing out there.’

“He’s not the hardest of workers, but very little can go wrong with his swing so he doesn’t have to tinker with it a whole deal. It’s not like he has to try to find it all the time. It’s naturally all there.”

When I asked Sean Foley on Saturday for his opinion on Oosthuizen, he looked at me like I was a total moron and said something like, “Uh, he has the best swing in the game. Are you kidding me?”

I hadn’t watched Louis closely since the Open and that was such a blur and surprise (since we didn’t know anything about him). On Sunday I actually watched and I couldn’t believe I — along with the rest of the press — had overlooked him for so long.

“He’s not the big superstar type, he’s the champion golfer type,” said Hardy.

No, the former is a player like Bubba Watson, who loves the limelight.

***

The nervous tension and excitement in the room increased as the final groups made the turn, but the calmest person was Nel-Mare, cradling baby Sophia while smiling and talking with her friends and family. Going into this week, she had a feeling it was going to be one like any other.

“I said to (Louis’) dad last Saturday that I knew something special was coming up into this week,” said the soft-spoken (and incredibly nice) Nel-Mare. “I just had a feeling about this week. It’s the first time he made the cut here and it’s his fourth year playing.

“I think he was just relaxed and he had nothing to lose. He was very confident. He felt good and knows he’s swinging good. He was comfortable. You could feel it.”

Darn it, why didn’t I talk to her before the tournament started?

Oosthuizen played in the final group with Hunter Mahan the Sunday prior at the Shell Houston Open. He had a rough start with a few unlucky breaks, like two mud balls, but also a few poor swings. However, he fought back and shot three-under on the back nine to post a 75 for third. Without knowing the details, it might have seemed like Louis had succumbed under pressure, but then again, he kept his cool and ran away from the field at St. Andrews two years ago with much bigger stakes on the line.

He had also struggled since winning that major. Skeptics started to just assume he was a one-hit wonder. Instead he had been plagued by injury and then he made a big move last year, buying a home in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the Oosthuizens live from April to October, and joining the PGA Tour (where he was technically a rookie).

“We had a struggle last year,” said Nel-Mare. “It was his first year playing over here, so all of us were homesick, trying to adapt to the U.S. tour. It was all kind of new. This year he is more relaxed and settled in.”

Like most players after winning a major, Louis put pressure on himself to win another. Nel-Mare said she could tell he felt it.

“Every week there feels like there are more eyes on you,” she said. “After a year, it’s so much more relaxed and there are new winners…he didn’t discuss it with me — he’d never say anything. I just know him.”

Added Charl Schwartzel later in the afternoon: “After the Open, Louis had an injury and that put him back a little bit. I don’t think people realized really how good he was and he didn’t get enough credit for his win at the Open, but I think he’ll be rid of that now.”

Indeed. It’s a little funny how a second-place finish (finally) solidified his place in golf as a top player when he already had one major under his belt.

***

On Easter Sunday, Louis woke up and spent the morning playing with his first daughter Jana. He hid some eggs in the garden at the house they rented for the week and then took Jana to search for them.

“It was a great way to start the day with some family time,” said Nel-Mare, who told her husband it was a shame she couldn’t walk with him since she had to take care of their newborn. “He said, ‘It’s ok, I’ll see you on the 18th.'”

Sophia slept peacefully in her mother’s arms, not making a peep. Nel-Mare handed the baby to Mienie before heading over to pick up Jana from daycare.

***

Meanwhile, Miguel Angel Jimenez made an appearance, with beers in hand, before going back for a plate of hot food from the buffet. He was accompanied by two women, one was a young blonde, his girlfriend, who I’ve often seen out here. He sat at the table in front of the TV.

I could sense the stress and excitement growing as Louis and Bubba made the turn. When Louis missed the 10th green, there were quiet groans, but more notably, baby Sophia started crying for the first time. Hmm…interesting timing.

I stepped outside for about 15 minutes to chat with several players coming in to get their take on Bubba and his game. The other Louis, the player-manager, was pacing nervously near the scoring area. “I can’t stand it,” he said, referring to his restlessness and anxiety. “I just needed to take a little walk and some fresh air.”

Understandable. I could only imagine. Actually, I was getting second-hand stress from just being in the room and watching with them. No joke.

When I returned defending champion and Louis’ best friend Charl Schwartzel was sitting in a chair on the far side of the room against the wall, but the best angle to the TV. His green jacket was laid neatly over the armchair that Hardy had occupied earlier. Naturally, it had its own seat. Charl’s wife was on the couch.

Bubba’s player-manager Jens Beck sat by the desk, just to the front-right of Charl.

Bubba and Louis were playing the par-3 No. 12.

Amber Watney walked in and took a load off, as well, while she waited for Nick to come out of the locker room. She reached into her wallet and called over to Charl, asking him if he could give some cash to Nick (presumably to tip the staff). He said, yes, of course.

When Nick walked out, he said, with his usual wide-eyed bewildered expression, “I thought Charl was giving me money.”

The room erupted with laughter.

***

On the par-4 No. 14, Louis rolled in one of the many clutch 12-footers for par. “That was huge!”

Charl let out a deep breath and Louis’ friends and family clapped with glee and relief.

“I believe that being under the gun here, as hard as it is, it’s the best place for Bubba because coming down the stretch, it sets up so well for him,” said Brandt Snedeker. “He can hit some lonooog balls, which gives him a huge advantage.

“While with a guy like (Matt Kuchar), it’d be tougher on him because on No. 15, he can’t necessarily reach it (in two), 17 isn’t an easy tee shot, neither is 18, for guys like us. But for Bubba, it’s about as good as it gets.

“I always say this is one of the hardest to win because so much can happen in the last five holes.”

Which is almost exactly as it happened.

On the par-5 No. 15, Bubba absolutely striped a drive. I mean, striped. There were a chorus of wow-type murmurs. Jens said, chuckling, “That’s so far down there, it’s a joke. Meanwhile, Charl was just laughing in awe.

Bubba was in great position for an eagle and it looked like a possible two-shot swing, with Louis putting himself in a tough place on his second into the green. However, he hit an excellent chip (well, as good as he probably could have from where he was) and rolled in an eight-footer for birdie and to regain the outright lead. Minutes earlier, Matt Kuchar had tied Louis after throwing a dart at the 15th pin and making eagle par-3 No. 16, where there had already been aces by both Bo Van Pelt and Adam Scott.

Lee Westwood had just finished up at eight-under, putting him in position for yet another top three at a major. In fact, it’s his 7th one since the ’08 U.S. Open. Which is truly impressive, but it must eat away at him that he has left opportunities out there and missed key putts at the wrong times, costing him that elusive first major.

Chubby trudged in and stood next to Charl for a few minutes before leaving to attend to Lee, who left the grounds in record time.

I found it interesting that Team Louis and Team Bubba — in this case, just Jens — were watching the compelling duel in the same room. What’s more, it seemed amicable and it actually wasn’t in the least bit awkward. When I made a comment to Jens, he said something about them all being friends or knowing each other for a long time.

***

“It’d be a real honor (to put the jacket on Louis),” said Charl, as the penultimate group made their way from the 15th green to the 16th tee. “He’s come a long way since our junior days. It’d be pretty special to share winning jackets.

“I watched him start and I was three-under through 3, 2-under through 4, that was the same way I started, you’d think it was a good sign…it’s one of those things it’s your day. By the looks of how he’s putted and played…it might just be his day…”

I had cautiously approached Charl since he was watching the telecast so keenly and intently and supporting his good friend. I couldn’t help but think, crap, what if that’s a jinx? Yep, I take full responsibility.

Now Bubba had already started his run to catch Louis. The long-hitting shot-making lefty had made three consecutive birdies. On the 16th tee, he had this intense look in his eye of just absolute focus — one that I’d never seen before, especially from an unconventional, eccentric guy who admittedly struggles with patience and concentration. Bubba hit a beautiful shot to three-feet (again, an almost ace). Jens clapped and celebrated by himself.

Bubba made the putt and going into 17, the duo was tied at 10-under.

Oh boy. I was getting such second-hand anxiety I swear I nearly had a panic attack!

Then a Green Coat appeared and peeked in the room, looking for Charl and making sure he knew where he was when the time came to take their places. He also apologized for the disruption.

***

On the par-4 No. 17, Bubba hit a curving drive, except it didn’t turn back and went straight into the trees. Louis stepped up and nearly did the same thing.

Uh-oh.

“I think both just realized they have a chance to win,” said Jens, half-jokingly.

Louis’ approach came up short in the front greenside bunker and everyone groaned. Meanwhile, Bubba was deeper in the woods in no man’s land. Hitting from the pine straw with what appeared to be a wedge, he yelled in frustration, showing his disgusted.

“He doesn’t like it,” said Jens. “He chunked it. It looked like he chunked it.”

The ball still landed on the green and left Bubba with about 30 feet for birdie.

Charl nudged Jens with his leg, smiling nervously, and with his right hand in a fist, he made that gesture of a pounding heart, extending his arm out and hitting his chest. In other words, he was commiserating on the stressful situation.

Then the room exploded with applause after Louis knocked his shot from the sand to three-four feet.

“What a bunker shot!” said Charl.

As Louis read the putt and started to set up, Charl murmured, “Straight putt in, Louis.”

He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands under his chin, staring intently at the TV.

“I’m nervous, you want your friend to succeed, obviously,” he said, referring to his emotions. “It’s nerve-wracking. I hope he wins.”

Louis rolled the putt dead center of the cup. A mix of sighs of relief and clapping filled the room.

***

Onto the 18th!

Bubba bombed another drive down the middle. Louis hits it really long, but he doesn’t have the advantage of overpowering the course, especially those final five or six holes coming in at Augusta, like Bubba does.

Everyone held their breath as they waited for Louis to tee off. Nel-Mare looked the calmest, while his mother couldn’t watch, hiding her face in angst.

“He likes it!” said the other Louis.

The Green Coat walked in and apologized for interrupting, but they needed to mic him up and prepare for the ceremony and trophy presentation, etc.

Charl got up and picked up his green jacket on the way out.

A bit earlier, Nel-Mare had opened a package of baby clothes that appeared to be a gift and laughing with joy at one of the bibs. She held it up. It read: “Daddy’s Lucky Charm.” She dressed Jana in it before she went off to the 18th green.

Louis’ approach into 18 was almost perfect, except it didn’t spin back down the ridge, leaving him with a difficult downhill two putt. On the other hand, Bubba had an easy shot for him into the green and knocked it to about 20-25 feet with a relatively straightforward putt for the win.

He missed.

Louis still had some work left. His birdie putt nearly went in, but burned the edge and rolled past about five feet (it was nearly impossible to stop that delicate, quick putt). The TV in the Grill Room was two seconds ahead of ours. We waited to hear from the crowd reaction and heard groans. He missed! Wait, no, he didn’t!

The Americans next door were obviously cheering for the American player.

So then, we were headed for a playoff with darkness looming at Augusta National.

***

We know how the story ends, which Brendan captured here.

I’ll leave you with this fitting quote that came from my chat with Jim Furyk after he posted a two-under 70 that would be good enough for solo 11th.

“Until you get the chance to win here, it’s definitely an extra notch up of controlling your nerves and slowing the pace down and sticking to what got you there,” said Furyk, whose playing style is more conservative and conventional (not his swing, though). “I’ll tell you what — I wanted to throw a brick through the TV when I saw Phil on No. 13 (in 2010) in the pine straw, I was yelling, ‘Just lay it up!’

“And then (Phil) hit it five feet. So I said, ‘Maybe that’s why he’s winning the Masters and I’m not.’

“I think you have to pick and choose your times, but eventually at a course that’s difficult and severe, you’re going to have to hit some really good golf shots.”

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)