BETHESDA, Md. – To appreciate their story of friendship and improbable dreams come true, there are bookend snapshots to consider.
At one end, it was in the the early 1990s when Louis Oosthuizen, then 12, met 10-year-old Charl Schwartzel for the first time.
“He was excited to play with me,” said Oosthuizen, who was starting to build a reputation as a junior player in South Africa. “I was excited to play with him, because he was a young kid coming through.”
Schwartzel’s memory of that South African Boys championship remains vivid, “like it was yesterday.” And what he remembers is Oosthuizen’s three-putt early and the spirited temper that arose.
“He always tells me his dad said, ‘Wow, this kid has a bad temper. He’s bad news,’ ” Oosthuizen said, flashing a wide and warm smile.
Fast forward some 17 years for the other bookend snapshot, the image of Oosthuizen and Schwartzel setting forth from the first tee at Congressional Country Club for a Tuesday morning practice in preparation of the 2011 U.S. Open.
Bigger, flashier, sexier, and, yes, more red, white, and blue golfers were elsewhere on the grounds at Congressional, yet only one practice-round pairing included two of the last three major winners.
Oosthuizen, your Champion Golfer of the Year from 2010, courtesy of his heroics at St. Andrews.
Schwartzel, just two months removed from an historic performance at Augusta National, birdies on each of the last four holes to win the Masters.
As attractions go during pro golf practice rounds, this should have been as good as it could get. Still, you wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that the South Africans meandered along quietly, causing very little stir on a quiet and strangely cool day that was devoid of the legendary summer humidity. Not only did the lack of fuss not bother the longtime friends, it’s sort of the way they prefer it.
“It doesn’t really matter to me and I think it won’t matter to (Charl),” Oosthuizen said.
As for which of the two major winners perhaps gets noticed more often, Oosthuizen suggested it was Schwartzel. “He won the Masters,” he said. “It’s fresh in the memory, probably.”
What is lodged between those two bookend images is a story of two good friends determined to remain true to their humble roots and chosen profession. It is not easy, as Oosthuizen discovered after winning the British Open and Schwartzel is now learning as reigning Masters champ. It is in that search – to find balance in their lives despite realizing fame as a major champion – where Oosthuizen and Schwartzel have truly leaned on one another.
“I remember talking to Charl after my Open win and saying, ‘It’s tough, it gets to you, some things,’ ” Oosthuizen said. Schwartzel would comment that he could see how his friend had changed, but then came the 2011 Masters, birdies at 15, 16, 17, and 18 on an unforgettable Sunday, then days and weeks of certain demands made of the 26-year-old.
“Now I just laugh at him when he looks at me and he starts talking,” Oosthuizen said. “I said, ‘I told you.’ ”
“All of a sudden, you become very famous,” he said. “I think for anyone (who wins) a first major, it’s an adjustment.”
What appears clear is this: Schwartzel has made a smoother adjustment than his boyhood friend when it comes to the decision to maintain dual memberships on the American and European PGA Tours this year. Oosthuizen, who ranks 153rd in money and 158th in FedEx Cup points, can point to an ankle injury at the end of 2010 and an eye ailment back in March as explanations for his fragmented performance, but he doesn’t hide from the difficult task he took on.
“It’s difficult,” he said. “You almost feel like you’re in the middle of both tours. Only in the last few weeks have I gotten my head around it. I think next year I’ll have a great idea what I need to do.”
Buoyed by that Masters triumph, Schwartzel is in a far more comfortable position – 18th on both lists. But it’s not like he’s done it with ease. He agrees with his compatriot that the travel has been tough, “but I made the decision at the beginning of the year to have a new challenge.”
If Schwartzel has thus far handled the challenge better than Oosthuizen, he credits experience. Though younger than his friend, Schwartzel made his pro debut in America in 2005 and through 2010 had played 29 times here. Oosthuizen didn’t play over here until 2007 and had just 13 starts through 2010.
“He didn’t play as much as I did in the beginning,” Schwartzel said. “I got accustomed to it; he didn’t. I think I’m definitely a little step ahead of him in that sense.”
Next month, Oosthuizen will pick up a little American ground on his pal, because he’s decided to play the John Deere Classic the week before he tries to defend the Open Championship. A curious decision, perhaps, but Oosthuizen offered reasons why.
One, he said he’s always wanted to play in that tournament.
And two, the title sponsor happens produce something very close to his heart – farm equipment.
“He told me he couldn’t wait to visit the (John Deere) factory,” Oosthuizen’s agent, Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, said. “I said, ‘You’re really going to go to the factory? He said, ‘You bet.’ ”
Schwartzel laughs and, yes, he’s seen the famous tractor, the one Oosthuizen bought himself to celebrate his St. Andrews magic last summer. But a trip to the John Deere Factor? Schwartzel isn’t so sure about that.
“It’s pretty amazing, the tractor. (But) in a way, I think he’s got quite an overkill on equipment,” Schwartzel said, laughing. “He wants more, I know. He’s addicted to the stuff.”
Truth is, what consumes Oosthuizen is simple. It’s being true to who he is. The golf, the dual memberships on the world’s best two tours, the claret jug? That is what he does.
“But he loves the farm,” Schwartzel said, his voice saturated with respect for his best friend.
“I think if he stops (playing golf) one day, he’ll be on the farm.”
Chances are, he’d be like he is while on the golf course – at peace with himself.
Videos with each player, courtesy of TourPlayers.com:
Charl Schwartzel discusses winning the Masters.
Louis Oosthuizen on the past year since winning the British Open.