“IT’S like David beating Goliath. He’s just my little bulldog. He gets on your pant leg and won’t give up until he gets some flesh.” The words of Damon Green, Zach Johnson’s caddie, that provide a perfect summary of the 144th Open Championship, both in terms of the storyline and the tenacity that penned it.
So much for the Old Course being somewhere that plays into the hands of the big hitters. True, it looked that way after two days when the other Johnson, Dustin, used his length off the tee to lead the way. Ultimately, though, it was precision that prevailed over power in this Claret Jug joust.
With an average of 289.9 yards, the eventual winner was 60th in the field for driving distance over the four rounds, sitting wedged between Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee and Scotland’s Richie Ramsay. Interestingly, Jordan Spieth was below all of them with 287.5 yards, though that was probably due to the fact he took a 3-wood for position at the fifth – one of the holes used for that statistic – rather than the big dog.
Where Johnson makes up for what he loses in length to his rivals is through a combination of keeping out of any real trouble – he didn’t have a single double-bogey and just seven bogeys in 72 holes – and being among the best in the game in the so-called “scoring areas”.
Only Australian Marc Leishman, beaten along with South African Louis Oosthuizen by Johnson in the four-hole play-off, finished the event with better putting stats than the winner. Johnson started with 27 putts then had 31 in each of the two middle rounds before finishing with 26 for an average of 1.60 (Spieth, with 30 putts in his last round, had 1.69). His 25-foot birdie putt down the slope at the 72nd hole was one of the best in Open history. It kept his title hopes alive. To then go out in the play-off and knock in 12 and 18-foot efforts for birdies at the opening two holes was the mark of a true champion.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The 39-year-old wasn’t the man the majority of us hoped to see come out on top in just the event’s second Monday finish. Grand-Slam chasing Spieth would have been a much more popular winner.
So, too, would 2010 champion Oosthuizen, who certainly seemed to have a hefty weight of Media Centre money on his back judging by the reaction to his holed putts in the last round. Leishman as well following the trauma he suffered earlier in the year as his wife came close to dying.
Never let it be said, though, that Johnson sprung a shock at St Andrews or has only “now” announced his arrival as one of the game’s leading players. After all, we are talking about a man that won The Masters in 2007 and has recorded victories ever since then. In addition to two majors, his haul includes ten PGA Tour triumphs. He has also played in four Ryder Cups.
Much of the talk in the early part of last week had been about Spieth being under-prepared for the Old Course due to the fact he had delayed his journey from the United States so that he could play in the John Deere Classic. Johnson finished a shot behind Spieth in that event yet, in comparison to his compatriot, was “under the radar” all week, really. “I guess that radar is going bonkers right now,” said Johnson, smiling, as the Claret Jug sat in his lap.
He used “humbled” a lot in his champion’s press conference. He joked about the “bald spot” he protects from the sun when wearing a cap and chuckled when it was suggested he’d be the “poster boy” for next year’s event at Royal Troon. “That’s one phrase I’ve never heard coined with me,” declared Johnson, a devout Christian.
He added: “I know I’m not the most charismatic or fun-packed individual on the golf course, but I really do love golf. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve enjoyed practising more and I’ve enjoyed working out more.
“I feel like I’m a better player now than I was when I won The Masters and to win this event at St Andrews is hard to put into words. I’m not a great historian, but I do know that this is the birthplace of this great game and has fantastic fans.”
No-one knows his game better than Green, who’d been on Scott Hoch’s bag before joining forces with Johnson, a rookie at the time, in 2004. According to him, this major win was better than the first one. “Maybe this is more special because you never know if you are going to have another one or even have a chance to win another one. For him to pull it off man, wow,” said Green.
“He was really calm today. It was really eerie. It was almost the same thing at Augusta. The closing nine holes he was cool, calm and collected. I thought he’d be getting a little nervous. Usually when he gets nervous, he says, ‘put your hand on my heart’. But today he was so calm. I don’t know what it was. He was just in total control. Man, he just played awesome today. I’m so proud of him.”
Would it have been a different story if Rory McIlroy, the world No 1, had been there to defend his title rather than sitting at home recuperating from his football injury?
We’ll never know and he’ll have to wait six years – the likelihood is that the next Open there will be in 2021 to coincide with the event’s 150th staging – for the next St Andrews one to come around.
Hopefully Mother Nature will be a bit kinder then, but, despite her best efforts, St Andrews didn’t disappoint in being able to serve up a sporting spectacle. One that will be remembered most for Johnson’s birdie putt to get into the play-off as well as the remarkable Spieth – his name will go on the Claret Jug one day, make no mistake – taking his bid to become the first player since Bobby Jones in 1953 to win The Masters, US Open and The Open to the bitter end, at least in regulation play anyway. Two bulldogs, in fact.