He's back? Injury-prone Oosthuizen fires 69

Louis Oosthuizen fired a 3-under 69 after years of dealing with a balky back that has caused him to undergo treatment and miss plenty of action.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Sophia Oosthuizen ran toward her father Wednesday, on Masters eve, and he reacted with paternal instincts. He happily bent over and scooped her up into his arms.

There was only one problem with that loving embrace. A strange sensation resonated through the already balky back of Louis Oosthuizen. The uh-oh moment was such that he reported a “tweaked” back to his agent, Chubby Chandler, that night.

“It was a bit of a scary moment,” Oosthuizen said.

So there wasn’t much high expectation here for the gap-toothed South African who won the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews. He wasn’t high on anyone’s pick list. Yes, Oosthuizen played off here two years ago, but he missed the cut in his four other appearances at Augusta National.

Then there was the beat-up back, a problem for almost a year. He has a bulging disc and dysfunctional facet joint. He withdrew during the HP Byron Nelson Championship and U.S. and British Opens last year before taking two months off. He had cortisone shots in November and March. He withdrew right before the Honda Classic and then didn’t qualify for the weekend in his last two starts, giving him three missed cuts in five Tour events this year.

Victory out of nowhere at January’s Volvo Golf Champions in his homeland was about his lone positive result of the past year, and that came after little practice. Even when he reached the WGC-Accenture Match Play quarterfinals, his back acted up all week.

But there the sweet-swinger Oosthuizen was Thursday, smiling his way around the National, making six birdies against three bogeys and shooting a 69 that put him in a tie for second, one shot off Bill Haas’ lead, after the first round.

“Luckily,” Oosthuizen said, flashing that Shrek-like smile, “my back wasn’t a problem when I woke up this morning. It was good.”

Normally when the headline reads, “Oosthuizen’s back,” it’s not a good thing. But it was Thursday, for he was back in form, hitting 15 greens in regulation and capping the round with a 20-footer for birdie at 18.

“Some days are good, some are bad,” he said of his back. “I’m just managing it. One of the things I need to manage is to not pick up my girl when she runs toward me.”

The problems have limited his preparation, both on full swings and putting. But Oosthuizen says he hopes his back will be fine in a couple of months after more therapy and strengthening exercises. He also has a more immediate goal.

“Hopefully it will be fine the next three days,” said the man who lost a 2012 playoff to Bubba Watson here.

Oosthuizen considered getting an epidural injection in March but decided against it. “He didn’t have it because he’s not pregnant,” Chandler cracked.

Oosthuizen said he felt his game improving the last month or so even though his scores and missed cuts didn’t indicate it. “I’ve been feeling it for a while,” he said. Plus, he had that two-year-old positive memory to fall back on.

“That gives you confidence you can do well on this golf course,” he said.

Oosthuizen’s second-place finish was highlighted by a double-eagle 2 on the par-5 second hole. Ultimately that didn’t help him win, but it ended up as a tool to deflect talk of the playoff loss.

“The great thing is that here everybody wants to talk about his albatross,” Chandler said. “They don’t talk to him about losing the playoff. It’s all positive.”

One uncertainty, though, is which Oosthuizen might show up on any given day – even when his back is healthy. He’s a streaky player whose results are difficult to predict.

“If you ask my if he’s going to play good, I have no idea,” Chandler said. “I have no idea if he’s going to do this (69) or shoot 5 over. There are no signs with him.”

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