THE 18th hole at Durban Country Club has been kind to Louis Oosthuizen. It’s where he benefited from Scott Jamieson just failing with an eagle chip to force a play-off in the $4 million Volvo Golf Champions 12 months ago.
From a completely different angle, it’s also where the South African produced an equally deft touch himself to retain that title after a final round of twists and turns in the 2014 version.
A closing 68 for a 12-under-par total of 276 – four more than last year – saw Oosthuizen home by one shot from compatriot and 2012 winner Branden Grace (68), the fact a home player prevailed in the end perhaps having been inevitable.
After all, six previous European Tour events held on this course were all won by South Africans, who have also now triumphed in eight of the last 11 events on the circuit staged in the country.
It was the fourth year in a row that Oosthuizen had made a winning start, though he will be hoping this triumph brings better luck than last year, when a long-standing back problem prevented him tasting further success.
“It’s an awesome start to the year and, from a confidence point of view, this is great,” admitted the 2010 Open champion of landing a £420,000 top prize. “With all my injury problems, I’ve not played well since winning here last year but I can build from here. I’ve still got a few little niggles that I need to work on, but it’s been a great week and I felt really comfortable out there today, especially with my irons.”
On the hottest of the four days, the wind was back blowing off the Indian Ocean. It meant the opening few holes were fraught with danger once again, though another South African, Thomas Aiken, made them look ridiculously easy as he breezed to the turn in 31, five-under. Having started out eight behind Tommy Fleetwood, however, he’d only made the fringes of the leaderboard by the time the man in pole position overnight set out.
Sticking to a gameplan that had served him well for 54 holes, it started promisingly for Fleetwood as he briefly held a three-shot lead. It soon became apparent, though, that the South Africans were up for a final-round fight. Grace birdied three holes in a row from the sixth to reach ten-under, joining Fleetwood on that mark after the Englishman had missed the green at the fifth and bogeyed it. An eagle-3 at the eighth hoisted Oosthuizen to ten-under, too, and, almost simultaneously, Fleetwood let another one slip at the seventh. When a three-putt meant a par went down on the card at the eighth and another shot went at the next, he was definitely beginning to wobble.
In contrast, Padraig Harrington made his move over the same stretch, the highlight of an eye-catching burst from the three-times major champion being an eagle at the eighth. A birdie at the 17th moved him to within a shot of the lead but it was a case of close but no cigar in the end.
“It was nice feeling I had a chance and there were a lot of good signs but, while I’m happy with the way I’m hitting the ball, I’m distraught with my putting,” said Harrington. “I missed a lot of short putts this week and, if you add them up, it might have been different.”
Grace led on his own after Oosthuizen started for home with a 6 but the positions were reversed due to a combination of the former dropping his first shot of the day at the short 15th and the latter arriving there following back-to-back birdies. Grace wasn’t finished yet, though. Playing in the game ahead of his compatriot, he birdied the 16th and 18th to set the clubhouse target on 11-under. The 16th had cost Oosthuizen an ugly 7 on Saturday; he let one shot slip on this visit to fall behind again but hit a superb approach at the next to be tied once more.
Playing downwind, birdies had been commonplace at the last – a short but fun par-4 – but, after seeing his tee shot kick through the green, Oosthuizen had to work hard for his but was up to the task. Chipping across the side of a slope, he put it to just over two feet and rolled in the putt.
“After seeing that Branden had just finished on 11-under, I knew that I had to give myself a good opportunity at the 17th and managed to hit it close,” said the double champion. “Then, at the last, I just wanted to get my tee shot past the pin so that I was chipping into the grain. I got that right and hit a really good shot.”
Fleetwood, last year’s Johnnie Walker Championship winner, closed with a 72 to finish joint-third with Dutchman Joost Luiten on ten-under – one ahead of both Harrington and French duo Raphael Jacquelin (69) and Victor Dubuisson (72).
“After holing a long one at the second, my putter turned cold,” reflected Fleetwood. “But it’s still been a good week for me and you’ve got to learn how to take hits to get out of your comfort zone.”