What about this new set of also-rans?

EASY as it is to get lost in wonderment as to how this guy from South Africa, Louis Ooosthuizen, snuck up on us, the intrigue with which we depart the Auld Gray Toon is plentiful enough to spread out over a number of topics.

Starting with the mystery that is Tiger Woods.

We have now played nine major championships without his name topping the leaderboard. There were the two played late in 2008 while he recovered from a knee injury, a winless campaign in 2009 that included YE Yang’s shocking rally at the American PGA Championship, and now three straight clunkers in 2010.

Spare us the silliness about Woods “still knocking the rust off”, as if he may have forgotten how to play the game during those five months he went into self-imposed exile to let the smoke clear in his personal life.

This is a man who sat out four months to have knee surgery, then returned to win the Buick Invitational.

Let’s be clear, it’s not his game. It’s his mind. It’s cluttered with so many worries and concerns – all of it his fault, yes, but still it’s clear he’s not in a good place these days.

It shows when he steps out of character and does things he never used to do – rip the greens at the US Open, part ways with a coach, sprinkle in veiled criticisms about his caddie, then head into the Open Championship without a putter that has helped him win 13 majors and more than 70 tournaments worldwide.

Woods returned to action with massive scrutiny and opened with a 68 to trail by two at the Masters. Shockingly, he’s never come any closer to owning any piece of a lead since then and at the Old Course he opened with a 67 in placid conditions, then shot 73-73 and actually said he played pretty well.

Since when have his standards been lowered to such a level?

That, however, is not the only question with which we depart St Andrews with. There is, quite curiously, this one: why can’t Phil Mickelson play links golf?

Think about it, he’s got one top 10 in 17 chances in a championship that demands great imagination, something Mickelson is blessed with. Alas, it also requires a change in ball-striking mentality, something Mickelson appears stubborn to do.

Not to spend too much time on that, because our week in St Andrews also left us wondering about Pádraig Harrington. A man of immense dignity and character, we are resting our finger on the panic button, even if he claims he isn’t.

Eventually, doesn’t he have to stop pointing to the silver lining and concede all is not well?

As for Ernie Els, we share his frustration. So much about his game appears solid – the ball-striking, the tournaments in which he plays, the competitive fire. Yet he floundered early at the Masters, let the US Open slip through his grasp, and shockingly missed the cut at St Andrews at a time when he appeared to be a strong favourite.

Then there’s Sergio Garcia. Forget the respectable Open Championship, because for too many months he’s been a total afterthought – and how improbable is that, given the young man’s great talent?

For all the praise that deserves to be directed toward Oosthuizen, it is hard not to leave St Andrews wondering about so many others.

Not so much a Rory McIlroy, who is young and will learn immeasurably from going 63-80, nor Ryo Ishikawa, who is getting more and more impressive with every step upon the world stage.

No, it was an Open Championship to wonder aloud about just when Lee Westwood will put it all together and whether we have seen the last of Retief Goosen as a major threat. What’s more, the image of Woods looking so average reminds us that you had to look hard to find an American presence on the leaderboard, which is not the way things have been.

Americans had won 11 of the previous 15 Open Championships – Harrington twice, Els, and Paul Lawrie being the only exceptions – but with Graeme McDowell having won the US Open to halt a 40-year drought and Oosthuizen the Open Championship, you can feel a trend that has been in the works for years.

Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, and Steve Stricker still maintain lofty spots in the world order, but clearly the best of the next generation are coming from the United Kingdom and South Africa, Japan and Spain and Germany, ports throughout Asia and even South America.

A stirring victory by a man named Oosthuizen brings that issue to the forefront even more, though even as we ponder it, a question pops into our mind. If indeed Woods has trouble putting “slow greens,” as he said so many times this week, how in the name of Bobby Locke did he win three of these claret jugs?

Just asking.


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