Louis Oosthuizen stood on the 11th tee with only one bogey on his card over 46 holes at Royal St. George’s and a two-shot lead Saturday afternoon in the British Open.
Five holes later, he stood over a 10-foot putt that he had to make to avoid trailing for the first time since the 12th hole of the second round.
Jordan Spieth was tied for the lead and belted a drive down the middle of the 17th fairway, leaving him only a half-wedge to the green. He walked off the 18th green three shots behind, so furious at missing a 2-foot putt that he bolted for the practice green and refused to speak to the media.
In the middle of all this chaos was Collin Morikawa, who went from a two-shot deficit to four shots behind after five holes, and he was fortunate it wasn’t worse. He was still four shots behinds on the 11th hole and was tied for the lead four holes later.
The final two hours set the tone for a final round off the English coast where about all anyone can count on is good weather.
Who could have guessed that?
Oosthuizen still managed to take the lead with a 1-under 69, getting a boost from a bold tee shot on the par-3 16th to 8 feet for a birdie that gave him a one-shot lead over Morikawa (68), three clear of Spieth (69).
“I did have a lot of opportunities to go two or three better, but that’s what this golf course can do to you,” Oosthuizen said.
The South African with a swing that looks as though it can never go wrong — it can, as the back nine showed — faces perhaps his biggest test.
Since his British Open victory at St. Andrews in 2010, he has been runner-up six times in the majors, including the last two.
Different about this chance is it’s the first time Oosthuizen has had the lead. He was part of at three-way tie going into the last round at St. Andrews in 2015 (he lost in a playoff) and at the U.S. Open last month (he finished one behind Jon Rahm).
“Go one better,” Oosthuizen said, repeating a theme he has mentioned all week. He knows he’s playing well, and that enough for him to believe this major might be different.
“Finishing second isn’t great,” he said. “So I will play my heart out tomorrow and see if I can lift the claret jug again.”
The R&A did its best to help to make Royal St. George’s as difficult as it could be under the circumstances. Wind is the best defense on any links course, and it has largely gone on holiday since the British Open began Thursday.
The course played to its maximum length, the back of every tees in play, making the course play 90 yards longer — 7,179 yards — than the scorecard.
Several pins were tucked behind knobs and invited trouble.
“The pin locations were no joke,” Rahm said after a 68, leaving him five shots behind and suddenly very much in the mix. “I don’t know if on TV you could appreciate it, but those are some of the hardest pin locations collectively I’ve ever seen.”
Morikawa, already a major champion at age 24, will be playing in the final group for the first time. He won the PGA Championship last year at Harding Park before no spectators and closing with a 64 with help from a driver to 7 feet for eagle on the 16th hole, the deciding shot.
His iron play is world class, and that wasn’t the problem Saturday. He misjudged the wind on the second hole and had to make a 7-footer to escape with bogey. He caught a wicked lie near a pot bunker, so close that he had to keep his feet together, and then had to hop down some 4 feet into the soft sand after his shot, which was close to going out-of-bounds.
That was a good bogey. That also was his last one.
When someone pointed out to Morikawa that he had never been in this position — the final group of a major, his first test of links golf — his reply indicated that shouldn’t be a problem.
“I’ve never been in the position all the previous other times,” said Morikawa, who already has a major and a World Golf Championship to his credit. “To be honest, you build a game plan and we see what we need to do all the way the tournament and I stick to it.
“That is exactly what I am going to try and do tomorrow.”
Oosthuizen’s struggles with the swing along the back nine made it more than a three-man race. Corey Conners had a bogey-free 66 and Scottie Scheffler had a 69 to get within four shots. Rahm was in a large group at five back that Mackenzie Hughes and Dylan Frittelli.
And then there was Spieth, whose game is clearly back and whose love for links is evident as ever. His bad finish kept him from being in the final group for the third time in the last four British Opens. The R&A said he declined all media requests. One can only assume he still likes his chances.