By Sam Belden
The Masters starts this week, and world No. 1 Jason Day is the indisputable favorite to take home the green jacket. The Aussie has won six tournaments in his last 13 starts and has had a number of close calls at Augusta National in past years, making him the natural pick to win. Over the last six months, he’s been far better than anyone else on the PGA Tour.
For those reasons, it doesn’t make much sense to choose someone other than Day when you make your Masters prediction — he’s that good. However, every fan is entitled to back a favorite dark horse, especially in a year with such a dominant frontrunner. I’m going to spend the next several paragraphs making the case for my dark horse pick to win the Masters: Louis Oosthuizen.
At No. 11 in the world rankings, Oosthuizen might not fit the profile of a traditional underdog, but nevertheless, he is a less recognizable face than many others in this week’s small but star-studded field. With just one PGA Tour win in his career, the South African is still a relative unknown among casual fans in the United States.
Of course, dedicated followers of golf are more familiar with Oosthuizen. Six years ago, when he was 27, he turned in one of the most impressive performances in the history of the Open Championship. He led after the final three rounds, ending up at 16-under for the week. He finished seven strokes ahead of runner-up Lee Westwood, the largest margin of victory since some guy named Tiger Woods won by eight a decade before.
While his big win at St Andrews stands as the defining moment in his career, Oosthuizen has been in the mix at a number of other big events over the years. During the final round of the 2012 Masters, he holed out for an albatross on the second hole to take the lead and managed to hold his position for the rest of the way. By the end of regulation, however, Bubba Watson had caught up to him, and the two engaged in one of the most memorable playoffs in recent memory.
On the second hole of sudden death, Watson, whose ball was nestled in a bed of pine straw deep in the woods, hit a brilliant hook to within 10 feet of the hole. He converted his par and won the event, while Oosthuizen was forced to cope with having fallen to one of the greatest shots in the history of the Masters.
He’s had other close calls at the majors: Oosthuizen tied for second at both the U.S. Open and the Open Championship last summer, falling just short in another playoff at the latter event. He also had a memorable duel with then-world No. 1 Rory McIlroy at the 2012 Deutsche Bank Championship, finishing one stroke behind. He has increased his European Tour win count to eight.
Add it all up and Oosthuizen appears to be a prototypical big stage performer, a player who plays his best when the spotlight is at its brightest. However, he lacks the killer instinct and outsized personality that many would expect from that kind of player. Somewhat soft-spoken and reserved, he prefers working on his farm in South Africa to making public appearances and taking advantage of his minor celebrity status during off-weeks. Throw in a long and unpleasant history with leg, back and shoulder injuries, and Oosthuizen is one of the golf world’s most unlikely superstars.
All of these facts bring us to this week. Oosthuizen will be making his eighth start at the Masters, and while he’s missed the cut in four of his previous appearances, the other three resulted in top 25 finishes, including the runner-up from four years ago.
He’s also been on an exceedingly consistent run over the past several weeks. In his last eight starts around the world, he’s notched six top 15 finishes, including a win in Perth and a solo second at the WGC-Dell Match Play. He was in a great position to win the latter event before running into — who else? — Jason Day in the final round. Throw in the fact that he’s got one of the most technically sound swings in the game, and Oosthuizen’s chances of donning his first green jacket look better than most.
In sum, Oosthuizen has the game, the experience and the momentum to bag his second major this week. Given all the chances he’s had in the past few years, he’s overdue, and he’s in the right form to get it done. Day bested Oosthuizen the last time they were playing the same tournament, but maybe, just maybe, this week’s result will be different. We need only wait a few more days.