As I said in my Open Championship preview last week, picking winners of golf tournaments is a fool’s errand. The traditional yellow scoreboard of the 2015 Open Championship on the Old Course at St Andrews said as much to me at the close of the tournament.
I didn’t see Zach Johnson coming. I probably should have, after he had just barely missed the playoff at the previous week’s John Deere Classic (won by Jordan Spieth). Johnson triumphed Monday at St Andrews in a 3-man playoff over Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman. Oosthuizen seemed unable to hit the ball consistently for all of Monday’s 4th round, yet somehow managed to birdie the 18th hole after a spectacular approach to finish 72 holes in a tie with Johnson. Marc Leishman, who played the weekend in 64-66, made his lone bogey of the final two rounds just when he couldn't afford it, on the 16th hole holding a one-stroke lead. Johnson started the four-hole playoff with birdies on the 1st and 2nd hole, held his lead as everyone bogeyed the 17th, then watched as Oosthuizen missed a birdie putt to tie. "I hate when tournaments end on a miss," he said, which was mighty gentlemanly and undoubtedly true.
Johnson’s one of those guys who everyone thinks should win one of these because he hits the ball low, is a terrific wedge player, a tenacious putter, and a pretty even keel guy. He also won The Masters in 2007, which was the year Augusta National basically played as if it was an Open Championship. So it was weird that up until now, he hasn’t really knocked anyone’s socks off over there. I just figured that for whatever reason he was one of those guys who played the right kind of game but just couldn’t get it done. When Zach’s right foot slipped on his second shot to the 17th green at the beginning of his downswing, resulting in a bogey for the hole, it looked like that would be this year's signature bad luck moment. (Along with the many weather-related issues of the first two rounds, which I don't need to recount.) Johnson wouldn't go quietly, though, and he followed that by draining a 25-foot putt on the 18th to finish at 15-under, good enough either for a playoff or an outright win. Then he sat and waited... for an hour and a half.
What an hour and a half it was. Now we get to talk about Jordan Spieth. (I have to say I did predict would finish 3rd or 4th by a stroke or two.) Spieth was steely, erratic, exciting, marvelous, sportsmanlike, and everything everyone hoped he would be, except victorious. When he dropped a long downhill bomb of a birdie putt on the 16th hole to reach 15-under, it looked like he might actually get it done. After his drive on 17, though, he seemed to lose his swing a bit. He pushed his 2nd to the right, leaving him a long pitch to the green. He played it to about 8 feet but then couldn’t sink the putt, dropping him back to -14. His drive on 18 was a bit of a pull-hook far left, and he overcompensated for a mud ball on his second, leaving it right of the front pin, from where it spun into the Valley of Sin. Not being Constantino Rocca, he missed his birdie putt, and the Grand Slam was gone. True to form though, he and caddie Michael Grellar sat on the steps of the R&A clubhouse to watch the playoff, and he was early down on the green to congratulate Johnson when it was over.
So that covers Spieth. Jason Day was right with him at -14. Before the tournament, I thought that both he and Oostshuizen might be able to win, but that playing with Tiger Woods would derail them. I guess the maelstrom of Tiger is now expected, as both managed to survive watching him hack his way around the first two rounds. Both mounted charges on the weekend. Justin Rose did well, though he never challenged. Henrik Stenson was alright. Sergio Garcia challenged Monday until, as expected, his putter let him down, and Adam Scott did exactly the same. Scott briefly tied for the lead, in fact.
As for Dustin Johnson, well, he was there. And then he wasn’t. DJ overpowered the course during the first two rounds, and held the lead after 36 holes. In the delayed 3rd round on Sunday, the tournament passed him by. Just as everyone was shooting in the 60s, Johnson couldn’t manage birdies on the front nine and dropped a few strokes on the back nine, never to be heard from again. Rickie Fowler, my pre tournament pick, treaded water for two rounds, got to -7 after Sunday’s round, then closed with a 73 for a middle of the pack finish along with Phil Mickelson, Hideki Matsuyama, and others. I think that covers my pretournament mentions.
So now back to Zach, for whom this win redefines how he will be viewed in golf history. A second Major Championship means that his first at the Masters is not his only, and therefore can’t be viewed as a fluke. His second different Major Championship means that he can’t be viewed as a horse for a course type of winner. In fact, with 12 Tour wins and 2 Major Championships, he has a legitimate case to be inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame without winning another title. That’s pretty good for a guy from Iowa who played his college golf at Drake and then worked his way up through the developmental tours for 6 years before earning his way onto the PGATour in 2003.
Most interesting is the list of golfers who won the Masters who also won the Open Championship on the Old Course at St Andrews- a list that Zach Johnson now joins. The names are recognizable- Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Sam Snead, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. That’s not just a group of random guys. That’s a good chunk of golf’s Pantheon. Although Faldo wasn't a particularly long hitter or overly creative player, he was the dominant player of his era in the Majors, and the rest are among the most dynamic and popular golfers ever to play. Johnson won his Majors with accurate drives and surgical wedges on the two courses in the Major Championship rotation that are most associated with length and power. That takes supreme self-confidence and some steely putting nerves.
As a devout man of Faith, there is no question that Johnson truly feels that he has been blessed. It wouldn't surprise me at all if this win adds a little confident peace of mind to his competitive fire, and helps him win a few more titles. Maybe even a US Open somewhere along the line. Watching Zach bawl his way through post round interviews, and hold back tears while holding the Claret Jug during his acceptance speech, it was clear that he knew what this victory meant as a personal accomplishment. I usually don’t use quotes from athletes when I write about them, but something Johnson said during his immediate post-round interview, when ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi wouldn’t leave him alone, struck me as profound.
When asked why he was so overcome by his triumph, with tears rolling down his face, Zach replied, “Because I play golf for a living.” Yes, Zach Johnson, now two-time Major winner and 2015 Champion Golfer of the Year, most certainly plays golf for a living. Very well. Very well indeed.