Unexpected, Unimagined, but So Very Well Deserved

By: Tony Dear

It's hard to say with any degree of certainty but, since he joined the PGA Tour in 2004, roughly the same number of words has appeared in newspapers, magazines and web articles about Zach Johnson as has been written about Jordan Spieth in the last three months.

The thoroughly un-notorious, 39-year-old Johnson just doesn't get the attention of the 21st Century media which needs something, or someone, far more noteworthy than what this clean-living, relatively short-hitting, Christian fellow can provide. More often than not, it requires something juicy or divisive to get wandering readers to click a mouse, tap a screen or turn a page. Johnson is patently neither of those things.

But nor is Spieth. The young Texan has earned his headlines and column space with brilliant golf certainly. Perhaps more than that though, he is remarkable for what appears to be a happy case of early-onset wisdom. The press universally remarks how the young man is "mature beyond his years" but, seriously, how many people twice his age possess a similar attitude and approach to life, the universe and everything? Spieth already possesses a judgment and perspicacity few of his fellow humans will ever attain.

There you go, see? Zach Johnson wins the Open Championship on the Old Course at St. Andrews in superb style, firing a closing 66 to complete 72 holes at 15-under-par then outlasting Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in a four-hole playoff, but the temptation to focus on Spieth is already creeping in.

Returning to the main topic of discussion, Johnson now owns as many major championship victories as superstar Greg Norman. He's on the same number as Hall of Famers Johnny Miller, David Graham, Bernhard Langer, Jack Burke Jr., Hubert Green, Jock Hutchison, Tony Jacklin, Mark O'Meara, Jose Maria Olazabal, Henry Picard, Paul Runyan, Horton Smith, Curtis Strange, Craig Wood, Ben Crenshaw and Willie Park Jr. And he has as many as Spieth too.

After younger, more exciting players win a major, the tendency is always to speculate on how many more they will accumulate during their career. How many times during the last few weeks, for example, have you seen the question about which player - Spieth or Rory McIlroy - will win more?

But who's talking about how many Johnson will capture by the time he hangs up his SeeMore putter? Will he win another big one and join the likes of Billy Casper, Hale Irwin, Vijay Singh and Payne Stewart at three, or will he go beyond even that? Or, will he remain at two and forever be the subject of debate (not intense debate of course - no one would get intense about Johnson) about his Hall of Fame worthiness?

Based on Johnson's output thus far, he will now return to relative anonymity and continue refining his already razor-sharp wedge game and reliable course management. He'll win a Texas Open or John Deere Classic or two, witness another batch of young gunslingers smash their driver 20/30/40 yards past him, then emerge a few years down the road with his third major while reminding us all how grim determination and rigid adherence to a deliberate game plan can occasionally win the day over more gifted performers.

In Monday's final round, a bevy of more gifted, more acclaimed golfers stacked up against Johnson who had finished T76 at the Old Course in 2010, and missed the cut in 2005. Following a typically-spirited third-round 66, Spieth was there, eager to land his third major of the year and go another seemingly manageable step for Jordan Spieth but unthinkably large stride for most mortal golfers. Third-round co-leader Oosthuizen, who won at the Old Course by seven shots in 2010, began the final day three clear of Johnson. Sergio Garcia whose phenomenal ball-striking will surely one day conquer his dodgy putting and mental gremlins and win him a major was lurking, as was Adam Scott who already has his major and had recorded three top-five finishes in the last three Open Championships. Likewise looking dangerous were Scott's fellow Aussie Jason Day, who'd had five top-five finishes in the majors since 2011, 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, and multi-major winners Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington.

Also hovering were Irish amateur Paul Dunne, a former Walker Cupper and graduate of the University of Alabama-Birmingham who joined Oosthuizen at 12-under after 54 holes, American amateur Jordan Niebrugge, and PGA Tour winners Leishman and Robert Streb, both of whom seemed as unlikely to outmaneuver the big-name contenders as Johnson, who set out in the seventh-to-last group.

Most of the words that have been written about Johnson in the last 11 years came after his victory at the 2007 Masters, of course, when he famously laid up at all 16 par-5s and made 11 birdies. That time we got to know a little bit about the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native, but it was a brief dalliance with the press, which made the most of Johnson's gritty resolve, and found something far more romantic and compelling in Angel Cabrera's win in the U.S. Open at Oakmont two months later.

This time, Johnson should see a good deal more press after making seven birdies in the first 12 holes of a gutsy final round. Mention, too, should be made of the birdies he made at the first two playoff holes to establish a lead he wouldn't give up.

There were plenty of other sides to this wet and windy Open Championship that deserve a mention. The incredible scoring on a relatively benign first morning, especially by David Lingmerth who turned in 29 after seven birdies on the outward half (he would falter on the back and close with a 3-under 69, and eventually finish tied for 74th) - actually the scoring from the entire Championship in which 73 players finished in red numbers - caused numerous respected observers to wonder if the Old Course could handle players with supercharged drivers and high-performance, multilayer golf balls any longer. The Old Lady consorted with the weather gods, however, summoning up sufficient unpleasantness to cause chaos to the schedule, and give the final score a measure of respectability - no one broke Tiger Woods's four-round record of minus-19 269 in 2000.

Ah yes, Tiger Woods - he who once completed four rounds here without once having to play out of a bunker. The man who completed his first career Grand Slam at St. Andrews at the start of the century, and his second in 2005.

Ten years on, it was a sadly out-of-sorts Woods that returned to Fife, looking for a 15th major championship and some inspiration on the ground he so reveres. But, after a lot of hearty talk about being ready and "absolutely" able to win here again, his approach at the very first hole sank to the bottom of the Swilcan Burn after a half-hearted wedge came up short of the green. He then bogeyed the second, too, was out in 40, and eventually 'round in 76. After a second-round 75 Woods was on his way home having beaten only seven other players through 36 holes - three of them aged 55 and over, one an American who plays on the Asian Tour and qualified for the Open by finishing tied sixth at last December's Thailand Golf Championship, and one an English amateur who had scraped through regional qualifying by the skin of his nose.

Woods hit only 31 percent of the Old Course's generous fairways in the second round, and averaged over 32 putts for both - a fairly dismal showing by most accounts, especially those who insisted the former world number one should now do himself a favor and retire.

One of the over-50s that Woods did manage to beat was 65-year-old links great Tom Watson who, after 37 appearances and 126 rounds, played his final holes at the championship he won five times in eight years - from 1975 to 1983. Finishing his second round in near darkness, surrounded by near-empty grandstands, and with five straight bogeys wasn't the ideal scenario in which to take his leave, but it didn't really matter. Plenty of people had stayed to cheer him on one last time and, joined by a large contingent of fans coming out of the nearby pubs, they gave Watson the ovation a player of his stature richly deserved.

Also bowing out was Ivor Robson, the European Tour and Open Championship's beloved official starter who first called players to the tee in 1975 - the same year Watson made his first Open appearance - and whose last call, "This is game number 40, from South Africa Louis Oosthuizen, and from the Republic of Ireland Paul Dunne," came 40 years later at 2.30 p.m. on Monday. And, as if two big goodbyes weren't enough, the R&A's Chief Executive Peter Dawson was also involved with his last Open Championship, 16 years after his first, having made the decision to step down at the end of September. Sir Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer also said this would probably be the last time they played in the Open Championship, at St. Andrews at least.

Staying on though, for dozens more championships hopefully (the first likely to be in 2021 for the 150th staging of the event) will be the Old Course itself. Modified slightly for this year's championship by English designer Martin Hawtree, the course hosted its first Open in 1873 and, 142 years later, put on another epic show.

A measure of its greatness is the variety of golfers who have won there. Stylists and tacticians like Johnson, Nick Faldo, Peter Thomson and Bobby Locke upstaged the bombers. The game's finest natural talents - Sam Snead and Seve Ballesteros - showed what they were capable of. The greatest of them all - Jack Nicklaus, Woods and Bobby Jones, captured the Claret Jug on the hallowed turf. And golfers for whom there is no category - John Daly and Tony Lema, who showed up a day and a half before the 1964 Open started and managed to squeeze in nine practice holes before the first round - also became the Champion Golfer of the Year.

As Lema famously said, "(When I play the Old Course) I feel like I'm back visiting an old grandmother. She's crotchety and eccentric but also elegant. Anyone who doesn't fall in love with her has no imagination."

Zach Johnson's point-to-point golf could never be described as terribly imaginative. But after a couple of disappointing visits early in his career, you can bet he's fallen in love with the Old Course now.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.