ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – It was neither historic nor heartwarming, but the hurried final hours of the 144th Open Championship were infinitely entertaining.
A championship many didn’t think would ever end wrapped up with the masses pining for more when the proceedings were drawn to a close by Zach Johnson, who with a relatively mundane par at his 76th hole made the transition from being arguably the game’s most underrated major champion to an undisputed Hall of Famer.
It was a strangely orderly finale to what otherwise felt like a Grand Slam fire drill.
A day that began with three players tied for the lead quickly descended into a game of musical chairs, with eight players holding at least a share of the lead, and the event’s first playoff since 2009.
Johnson, already an 11-time PGA Tour winner and major champion, took his turn at the top with a birdie at the 10th hole after an opening nine of 31. He staked his claim to the claret jug with a charging 30-footer for birdie at the last for a final-round 66 more than an hour before the trailing game completed their round.
From there he watched and waited. He watched Jason Day, one of the 54-hole leaders, play his final 12 holes in even par to finish a stroke out of the playoff.
He watched Adam Scott move into a share of the lead with a birdie on No. 7 only to endure another painful Open collapse playing his last five holes in 5 over.
“It's hard to digest it all at the moment,” an emotional Scott said after a closing 71. “Maybe it was too much to ask today.”
He watched Sergio Garcia do what Sergio Garcia does, which is come agonizingly close to his first elusive major only to find a way to lose. But mostly he watched Jordan Spieth, the 21-year-old new standard in golf come closer to winning the single-season Grand Slam than anyone since Tiger Woods in 2002.
Although disappointed, Spieth didn’t disappoint, keeping pace with the frenzy with one clutch putt after another. He rolled in a birdie putt at No. 6 from 11 feet to move to within one stroke and bounced back from a stunning four-putt – his first four-putt in ... well, forever – with a 15-footer for birdie at No. 9.
At the 16th hole the would-be king – he would have unseated Rory McIlroy atop the Official World Golf Ranking with a victory at St. Andrews – charged in a 50-footer for birdie to join the traffic jam atop the leaderboard, but he failed to convert from 5 feet at the 17th hole for par and missed the green at the last to end his historic run.
“I think the way that I played this week and especially today would have won the U.S. Open by more than just a shot,” said Spieth, who tied for fourth a stroke out of the playoff after a closing 69. “The kind of golf that was played by the field this week, it just took some special golf. Whoever comes out the champion, that's a hell of a major.”
It was also a hell of a run for Spieth.
To put his effort in perspective, consider that the last time a player won the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship in the same season (Ben Hogan in 1953), the now-iconic Old Course Hotel was just a field and the road that defines the 17th hole was still a railway.
It was all part of one of the strangest Open Championships in recent memory, with play being halted by both rain and wind at various points, which is the competitive equivalent to a breakfast ball on the first tee of the Old Course.
It just doesn’t happen. Not at the Open, and certainly not at St. Andrews.
In the playoff, Johnson – who finished 72 holes tied with Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman at 15 under – struck first with birdies at the first two extra frames in the four-hole aggregate session. But, like he did in regulation, he made a mess of what has become the most difficult hole in major championship golf, missing his approach at the 17th hole short and hitting his third shot over the green.
But at an event that was defined by putting and wedge play it only stands to reason that Johnson – who earlier this week referred to hitting “a lot of loft,” which is golf geek speak for short approach shots – would prevail with a par at the last to beat Oosthuizen by a stroke.
“The key certainly for the week is patience and perseverance, without question, and I think in the playoff in particular,” Johnson said. “It was truly about just making the best of the opportunities, because you know the other two guys are not going to let it slide.”
As a general rule the golf gods are a cruel lot far removed from sentimentality and bouts of nostalgia, just ask the likes of Garcia and Scott, bridesmaids again at the game’s oldest championship.
But on Monday at the Home of Golf the cosmic caretakers peered through the gloom that had descended on St. Andrews and saw another tale worth telling.
It wasn’t Spieth and his attempt at the single-season Grand Slam, or Scott whose claret jug visions were undone by that familiar balky broomstick, or even Garcia and his ghosts of Opens past.
Instead, it was Johnson and his story of limitless determination. A bona fide grinder from way back, the kid from Iowa is the exception to the Tour player norm, humble and hardworking with a chip on his shoulder that he has come by honestly, through the hardscrabble days on the mini-tours to two major championships.
“On Sunday [at Royal Lytham in 2012] he was paired with Ernie [Els]. That showed him what could happen. That showed him that he just needed to stay patient,” said Dr. Morris Pickens, Johnson’s sport psychologist. “He’s always played golf knowing what he can do and what he can’t do. A lot of guys play full bore and come over here and have to switch their mindset. Zach didn’t have to do that.”
It was signature Zach, workmanlike and wildly understated. He didn’t overpower the softer side of the Old Course as many had predicted Dustin Johnson would, he simply picked it apart one swing at a time and outlasted a collection of contenders that would have filled the adjacent R&A clubhouse.
After his win at the Masters in 2007, Johnson defined himself as a guy from Cedar Rapids. On Monday at the Old Course he offered an update.
“I’m a normal guy from Cedar Rapids who lives in southeast Georgia who has a green jacket and something most guys don’t get to drink out of right now,” he smiled with a nod toward the claret jug.
After the hectic give and take of a manic Monday the playoff was otherwise anti-climactic with Oosthuizen missing a 4-footer for par at the third extra hole (No. 17) that would have knotted him with Johnson, but then the golf gods had already given so much.
Who would have thought a major played without both Woods and McIlroy – widely considered golf’s past and present – could have been so compelling?
The 144th Open was neither historic nor heartwarming, but there was more than enough heartbreak and heroics to fill the void.