Zach Johnson wins tense Open Championship play-off

USA's Zach Johnson celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning The Open Championship 2015 at St Andrews. Picture: PA
USA's Zach Johnson celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning The Open Championship 2015 at St Andrews. Picture: PA
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FINISHING at 7:57pm on a Monday, it was the longest Open Championship in history. It also ended Zach Johnson’s long wait to prove he won’t be remembered as a one-hit major wonder. Eight years after winning The Masters, he got his hands on the Claret Jug. The 39-year-old American’s victory over South African Louis Oosthuizen and Australian Marc Leishman in a four-hole play-off made him the event’s first millionaire, pocketing a cheque for £1.15 million.

At the end of a thrilling final round, the trio had finished on 15-under-par 273 – one better than American Jordan Spieth, who battled to the bitter end in his bid to become the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win The Masters, US Open and Open, as well Leishman’s compatriot, Jason Day. Johnson holed a 25-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to get into the shoot-out. He then nailed efforts from 12 feet and 16 feet respectively for birdies at the first and second in the play-off. In what effectively became a two-man fight after Leishman started with a 5, Oosthuizen matched the first of those birdies but his hopes of repeating a 2010 win here were dealt a blow when he three-putted the 17th, matching Johnson’s bogey there, then saw a ten-foot birdie attempt at the 18th to force sudden death agonisingly miss on the left.

Mother Nature had her hand in this event right to the bitter end. Just before the leaders started, so did the rain. It meant Moffat man Ivor Robson made his final announcement (before he was hauled back for the play-off) as the event’s official starter – he’s called it a day after 41 years – under the shelter of an umbrella. There was a fairytale end, too, as his last act, the 18,995th in this event alone, was to announce an amateur, Paul Dunne, on the tee.

While the 22-year-old Dubliner looked relaxed as he walked down the first fairway, he was clearly a bundle of nerves. A duffed second left him short of the Swilken Burn, from where he was unable to save par. His drive at the second found a different golf course – the 18th green on the New. It led to another bogey. Back to ten under, he was suddenly three off the lead and ended up losing out to American Jordan Niebrugge in the battle to be leading amateur.

Oosthuizen, Dunne’s playing partner, rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt at the first to move to 13 under, where he was joined by Johnson after he picked up four birdies in seven holes. Early thrusts were also made by Leishman, Padraig Harrington, Adam Scott and Garcia. Spieth looked set to do likewise following an opening birdie only to see his putter go cold for a few holes.

Johnson became the first player to reach 14 under when a birdie at the ninth took him out in 31. With his long putter working well, Scott rolled in a 20-footer at the ninth to join him in the lead, having also reached the turn in five under. Johnson edged ahead again with another birdie at the tenth – his sixth of the day. But, apart from Harrington, whose wayward tee shot that cost him a double-bogey at the sixth, they were all clinging on to his coat-tails.

Spieth’s fist pump showed how important it was for him to roll in a 10-footer at the sixth. Having also birdied the previous hole, he was up to 14-under alongside playing partner Day. Oosthuizen failed to pick up a shot at the par-5 fifth – the easiest hole on the course. He did birdie the next, though, to join the group on 14-under.

Matching Johnson blow for blow, Scott got to 15-under at the the tenth. Again, the American responded with yet another birdie from close range at the 12th. In the space of a few minutes, Johnson and Spieth suffered potential setbacks. Bunkered with his approach, Johnson dropped his first shot of the day at the 13th. Spieth, meanwhile, was way wide with his tee shot at the eighth and four-putted after sending the first one off the side of the green. On the way to the next tee, he threw his ball away in disgust. The young man is made of stern stuff, though, and bounced back with a birdie. Out in two-under 34 to sit 13-under, he started for home two behind Johnson, Scott and Leishman, who’d birdied the ninth and tenth. Spieth was within one of the leaders after also picking up a shot at the tenth.

Soon after Leishman birdied the 12th from three feet to become the first to reach 16-under, compatriot Scott’s challenge began to fall apart. Unable to get up and down from a bunker, he bogeyed the 14th. He then missed a short putt at the next to drop another one. Suddenly, he was three behind Leishman, who led by two when Johnson, having topped his second after slipping, dropped back to 14-under with a bogey at the Road Hole. But the American is a gutsy character. That was evident as he rolled in his lenghty birdie putt at the last to set the clubhouse target at 15-under after a 66.

By then, Scott was out of it, having limped home in 40. Garcia’s fire had also been doused on the back nine. Spieth wasn’t going away, though. He broke a run of five straight pars by rolling in a 40-footer at the 16th to join Johnson and Leishman on 15-under. After a big pull off the 17th tee, the Australian made a great par there, almost holing a 30-foot putt, to stay on that mark. His birdie effort from 20 feet at the last missed on the left to see him match both Johnson’s final score and total.

Could anyone else join them? Spieth slipped out of a share of the lead after dropping a shot at the 17th. He opted to lay up short right – the spot Jack Nicklaus always said was a good miss there – but was unable to convert a six-foot par putt. His drive at the last was way left; his approach spun back into the Valley of Sin. Costantino Rocca holed from there to get into a play-off in 1995. Spieth made a valiant attempt to do likewise but just missed on the left.

His bid to stay in the hunt to join Ben Hogan as the only player to win The Masters, US Open and Open in the same season came up one short. What a phenomenal effort, though. Rory McIlroy’s world No 1 spot is safe for now but maybe not for long.

Day also just missed out on the play-off. His closing 70 was flawless but only two birdies meant this was another case of close but no cigar for him in a major. That left Oosthuizen. He showed nerves of steel to hole a ten-foot par putt at the 17th. He then rolled in a four-footer for birdie at the last. A closing 69 made it a three-man play-off.