Zach Johnson demonstrated that the majors are not the exclusive domain of a big-hitting younger generation, that a player with a great wedge game and a reliable putter – and a mind strong enough to trust those modest powers – not only remains a relevant threat but also capable of winning golf’s biggest events on its biggest stages.
Johnson gave the golf world this lesson in winning the 2007 Masters Tournament. He did it again July 20 at the Old Course at St. Andrews when he won the 144th Open Championship at the recognized home of golf, turning back Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman to capture the distinction of Champion Golfer of the Year.
“I’m grateful. I’m humbled. I’m honored," Johnson, 39, an Iowa native, said as he failed to hold back tears, the only time he came up short of a goal all day when the Open Championship was pushed into Monday and then pushed further when Johnson beat Oosthuizen and Leishman in a four-hole playoff. “This is the birthplace of the game, and that Jug means so much in sports.”
Johnson, 39, now has a Claret Jug and Green Jacket among 12 PGA TOUR victories, not a bad collection of hardware for a player who has to rely on guile to beat the big hitters of this era. But, then again, the man who won the year’s first two majors, Jordan Spieth, was already proving that with his victories at the Masters and U.S. Open.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Spieth’s spirited bid for a Grand Slam was stopped by Johnson, who plays a similar game, though he is even more of a short hitter than Spieth, who was hoping to join Ben Hogan as the only men in the modern era to win the Masters and two Opens in the same year.
Spieth fell on shot short of the playoff when he bogeyed the famous par-4 17th Road Hole at St. Andrews after rolling in a 50-foot birdie putt on the previous hole for a share of the lead. When he failed to birdie the short par-4 18th, he had to settle for a share of fourth with Australian Jason Day, a Muirfield Village Golf Club member who left a tying birdie putt short on the 72nd hole.
"We gave it a great effort," said Spieth, who shot 69 and then stayed around to congratulate Johnson after the playoff, a show of sportsmanship not soon to be forgotten.
Neither will Johnson’s effort. The “norman guy” from Cedar Rapids closed with a 6-under 66 by holing a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole in regulation. He squatted and pumped his first when the putt dove in, and caddie Damon Green strutted and flapped his arms in a celebratory chicken dance that he used to perform when he was a player on the Web.com Tour.
Johnson was the first to post at 15-under 273 with his putt. Leishman, who considered giving up golf in April when his wife nearly died of a rare respiratory illness, had nosed ahead until he bogeyed the 16th hole to fall back into a tie with Johnson. He also had a brilliant 66. Oosthuizen, who won the Open Championship at St. Andrews in 2010 and was joint second last month at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, made a clutch 5-footer for birdie at the last for a 69 that got him into the playoff as well.
In the four-hole playoff, the first since 2009 when Stewart Cink beat two-time Memorial winner and five-time Open champion Tom Watson, Johnson matched Oosthuizen's birdie on the first hole and pulled ahead with another birdie on No. 2. Both made bogey on the 17th, and the South African had one last chance at 18 but missed a 12-foot birdie effort. Johnson’s 1-under aggregate made him the champion, while Oosthuizen was even and Leishman 2 over after he fell behind early by three-putting the first extra hole.
Johnson became the 14th man to win the Masters and British Open in the same year.
The championship finished on a Monday for the first time since 1988 because of a brief rain delay Friday morning and a 10½-hour wind delay on Saturday. Most of Monday was as intense as it gets, with 14 players separated by 3 shots at the start and eight players eventually climbing into at least a share of the lead at one point.
One of the early players sharing the lead was Paul Dunne, 21, of Ireland, who was bidding to become the first amateur since Bobby Jones in 1930 to win the Claret Jug. He faded early and ended up with a 78.Spieth heads to the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in August still with a chance to make history. No player has ever swept the three modern American majors in the same year. Only Hogan in 1953 and Tiger Woods in 2000 won three majors in a season since Jones won the Grand Slam in 1930.