ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — He wasn’t exactly the wrong winner, although in the context of what was possible in this 144th British Open, that could be one definition — if an unfair one.
Zach Johnson may not be Jordan Spieth, in fame or fortune, but he is “The Champion golfer of the year.”
That’s how the man from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which runs the oldest of tournaments, introduces the person who takes the Open. And while so much of the sporting world properly was paying attention to Spieth’s try at history, that person was Johnson.
The American won in a three-way playoff in only the second Monday finish ever for the Open — the other was 1988 — a playoff that included hard-luck Marc Leishman and 2010 winner Louis Oosthuizen. By the margin of one swing of a club, the playoff did not include Spieth.
And so much for ideas of anyone besides Ben Hogan in 1953 finishing first in the first three majors of the year, much less winning all four in year — the Grand Slam. Spieth, after taking the Masters and U.S, Open, came in as the story. Johnson leaves as the star, clutching the silver claret jug on which the names of every winner are etched, golfers like Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods
On yet another afternoon of rain, heavy at times, Johnson shot his second six-under par 66 of the week. That gave him a 72-hole total of 273, along with Leishman and Oosthuizen. Then, in the scheduled four-hole playoff, Johnson was one-under, Oosthuizen even and Leishman two-over.
So while some rued what might have been, the first opportunity in 43 years for someone to win the first three, Johnson — at 39, not one of new kids on the block — added the Open to his 2007 Masters victory. As Spieth, he now also has two majors. And a sense of perspective.
“He said congratulations and that he was proud,” said Johnson about Spieth. I mean, he’s a peer of mine. He’s an acquaintance of mine. A good friend of mine. Granted he’s 18 years younger (really 17).
“I can’t describe the magnitude as to what he was going through, because I’ve never been in that position certainly. We haven’t really seen that with the exception if Tiger, right? I mean truthfully, he could be sitting here.”
He meant at the winner’s press conference, but Spieth — supposedly the best putter on Tour, strong praise for a 21-year-old — four-putted the eighth hole when he knocked a long one off the green. And then tied for first with Johnson and Leishman, Spieth bogeyed 17, the evil Road Hole which has ruined so many through the decades.
It isn’t correct to call Johnson, who’s from Iowa, a plodder. More accurately he’s a putter, one of the very best on Tour. If he can’t drive the ball 300 yards, Johnson can hole it from eight feet — or as he did in regulation on 18 from 15 feet for a birdie.Then, very un-Zach like, he pumped his arms in celebration.
“Yeah,” he said, “there was a lot of emotion there. Clearly because it was on the 72nd hole, and I had a good round going.” It wasn’t a good round, it was a great round. He shot 31 on the front nine and didn’t have a bogey until 13. Then, as Spieth, he would bogey 17. Then, unlike Spieth he would birdie 18.
“It was a test, starting Thursday,” said Johnson. “The elements — I mean I can go on and on about this.” As in true Scotland fashion, the rain went on and on, stopping briefly and then returning with a vengeance. But when a golfer crosses the Atlantic to the land where the game started some 600 years ago, he expects to be drenched and pummeled by rain and wind.
Johnson was fortunate that he finished his second round Friday and didn’t have to go through the 11-hour delay Saturday. Then Sunday, he made birdies coming in.
Acknowledging that with his calm demeanor, and Midwest humility, he sometimes feels under the radar, Johnson laughed and said, “I guess that radar is going bonkers now.”
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.bleacherreport.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Arnold PalmerBobby JonesBritish OpenGary PlayerGene SarazenJack NicklausJOrdan SpiethLouis OosthuizenMarc LeishmanSt. AndrewsTiger WoodsZach Johnson