For Jack Nicklaus the change from amateur to professional was easy, simply a continuation of excellence, and over the years other young Americans were similarly unafraid of success in their first year of earning; but it was never so in Britain. Then Peter Oosterhuis came along and banished the myth that the professional's skills could be acquired only after years of servitude. It was Oosterhuis, you may recall, who led the Masters this spring by three strokes after three rounds, only to falter and finish third. Next week at Troon, along with countryman Tony Jacklin, he will try to give the British Open a homebred winner.
No British golfer ever made the transition from amateur with less strain; not for Oosterhuis the long struggle, frustration, heartache and disillusionment that have beset so many on changing codes. The graph of his career makes a smooth upward line with scarcely a kink in it. As Gene Sarazen once said of Tommy Armour, "As an amateur he was just fair. When he turned professional he made himself magnificent." Oosterhuis was more than a fair amateur, and there is every indication that he will become a superb professional.
Since deciding late in 1968 to devote his life to golf, Oosterhuis has won some $200,000 in prize money and a dozen or more important tournaments, most recently last month's French Open. For the past two years he has headed the British professional rankings and won Britain's Vardon Trophy for the lowest stroke average. In the 1971 Ryder Cup match in St. Louis he bested Arnold Palmer and Gene Littler on the same day with something to spare. He has beaten Gary Player at match play in major events in Britain and South Africa, and in the Masters shared third place with Jim Jamieson and Nicklaus. Only Jacklin among modern British golfers had comparable achievements at the same age.
The Oosterhuis family background is comfortable middle class, a degree of financial security that has contributed to Peter's confidence on the tour. Peter's father, a commodity broker and a Dutchman by birth, came to England in 1945 after the liberation of southern Holland, joined the Royal Air Force and took an English wife. After the war he joined the Dutch Fleet Air Arm and was sent to the Pacific. Eventually he returned to London where, in May 1948, Peter was born.
Although his parents played golf (his mother has a single-figure handicap). Peter was 12 before he started. One day his mother took him along while she picked blackberries on the course at Dulwich in southeast London. Peter was given a club, and that was it. It was soon obvious that he had exceptional aptitude, as well as a rare temperament, the legacy of a balanced, unspoiled upbringing.
Oosterhuis went to Dulwich College, a well-known public school, which in Britain means private and Establishment, and golf gradually superseded his interest in other games. Through the Golf Foundation he was taught by Len Rowe, the local professional, and within four years was a scratch player. "I gave a lot more time to golf than my schoolwork, which obviously suffered," he says, "but I can't have any regrets. It has been very profitable for one of my age. At one time they told me it was a pity that I hadn't taken advantage of what brain I had. Now the only thing I have a brain for is golf." Typically, he understates himself. His lucid mind could master many things, though not perhaps in fields paying $80,000 a year and more.
One May afternoon in 1966, the year that Nicklaus won his first British Open, Oosterhuis won the Berkshire Trophy, a prestige 72-hole event that attracted a fine amateur field. Few of the watchers had heard of him, fewer still could pronounce his name correctly (for "huis" say "house"). He was just 18 and stood 6'5" with an unusually compact swing—almost an elongated flick it seemed then—and great power. In his final-round 67 he toyed with a testing course to the tune of nine 3s in the first 12 holes. By odd coincidence, that same day in Belfast Jacklin won his first big professional tournament. Now they stand together at the head of British golf—Peter behind Tony, but maybe not for long. It was Jacklin whom Peter beat by one stroke to win his French Open title.
From the day he took the Berkshire Trophy, the progress of Oosterhuis has seemed inevitable. His selection for the 1967 Walker Cup team was never in doubt. His consistency in stroke play events the next year gained him a place in the world team championship at Melbourne and he posted the third-best individual score for the event.
Oosterhuis began his professional career on the South African circuit early in 1969. "I did not do anything different to prepare myself," he says. "As far as I was concerned it was the same game. You just had to be more proficient in all departments of it. I never found playing day after day was the strain some people imagine. As long as my golf remains of a fair standard I don't get stale. I was not under pressure to make money, and never had the problem of playing badly for any length of time."
In 1970 Oosterhuis ranked seventh in Britain, won over $25,000 and tied for sixth in the Open at St. Andrews. He was now established, and a year later South Africa again proved a profitable beginning to his season. There he met Anne Coney, now his wife.