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Dinner with Beef: Andrew Johnston, up close and personal

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AKRON, Ohio – Andrew Johnston’s eyes grow wide.

Five are gathered around a table on the patio of this upscale steakhouse, hours after Johnston’s opening round at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. The waitress, Ashley, has just begun reciting the night’s specials with impressive recall.

When she reaches the part about the 32-ounce, Kobe tomahawk steak, Johnston brings her memorized speech to a screeching halt.

“Hold on. Would you share that?” he asks. “Or could you eat it all in one go?”

Ashley circles her hands to demonstrate the approximate size of the steak, adding for good measure that her husband came in and finished it off just a few days earlier.

“Right, now you’ve challenged me. I’ll do the Tommie,” Johnston says. He gets his medium-rare, while his brother, James, orders his rare from the other side of the table.

“I feel sweaty already thinking about this,” Andrew says.

And thus began dinner with Beef.

“I can’t wait to get hammered.”

Johnston became an Internet celebrity with those six words, even among casual golf fans. He had just won the Open de Espana in April, and in a post-round interview he spoke candidly of his plans to return home to North Middlesex Golf Club – North Mid, as it’s known – to celebrate in a big way with his closest friends.

Displaying a cheery grin that rarely left during dinner Johnston explained that he never thought twice about his comments, or the impact they might make.

“I sure did,” said Shaun Reddin, a silver-haired Irishman seated to Johnston’s left. Reddin is Johnston’s longtime manager, and he’s paid to think about such things. He was at Valderrama for the biggest moment of his client’s professional career, and he was instantly aware of the reach his post-round quip would have.

“I just laughed, because it’s him,” Reddin said. “I’ve known Andrew for a while now, and I know he enjoys a party.”

Many golf fans might struggle to name more than a couple recent winners on the European Tour, and the list of champions of the Open de Espana doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue among Americans. But when a player with a bushy beard nicknamed Beef steps to the mic and declares that he’s ready to party, it receives attention.

What may have begun as a curiosity has blossomed into full-blown fandom for many Americans who have become enamored with the easygoing Englishman.

True to his word, Johnston did get hammered at North Mid shortly after his win. Reddin tried to prevent any photo or video evidence of the celebration, but inevitably a short video leaked showing Johnston, dressed as a piñata, leading the full-throated festivities.

He notched a top-10 finish a few weeks later at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, and Johnston improbably qualified for the U.S. Open in late May. That earned him his first start in the U.S. as a professional, and he quickly entered the good graces of the fans at Oakmont by sporting Pittsburgh Pirates gear and interacting on social media during the rain delay that interrupted the opening round.

For Johnston, 27, the newfound notoriety is still an unexpected change from being just one among a sea of players fighting for starts in Europe.

“We even had it in the Philly airport, people coming up. And it’s just like, what is going on? This is mad,” he said. “But I really enjoy it, man. I’ve got all the time in the world for it.”

His Bacchanalian banter eventually drew criticism from those that prefer players not engage in such debauchery. But Johnston, along with his close-knit team, didn’t bat an eye.

“You’ve got to celebrate success,” Reddin said. “I’m sick to death of hearing the guy win a tournament and say, ‘Yeah, well I wasn’t really happy with my putting so I’m going to go see my coach.’ Come on. Life’s too short.”

Photo gallery: 'Beef' battles 32-ounce tomahawk steak

The appetizers of rock shrimp and calamari arrive as Johnston details his latest plans for a stunt.

He’s heading straight from Akron to the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, where European Tour officials have asked him to make an appearance at a cattle farm in the Scottish Highlands. Beef visiting beef, you see.

Johnston is mid-bite on his salad but nearly doubles over in his chair, explaining through the laughter that he intends to show up for the visit in a cow onesie without telling a soul.

“You get an opportunity like that, get taken to a farm, and come on, man. You’ve got to turn up in something,” he said. “You’ve got to have some fun with that.”

“You’d better watch it, though,” added James, who bears a striking resemblance to his younger brother despite a 10-year age difference. “Because what if you get in there and there’s, like, some amorous bull? You’re going to get yourself in trouble, man. We’ll see you in a onesie being chased across a field.”

That particular visual brings a chuckle out of Louise Jay, the soft-spoken blonde sitting to Beef’s right. The two met through, of all things, a message on Facebook, and have been dating for seven years.

“I’m all for it,” she said.

The stunt aligns with Johnston’s ebullient personality. He enjoys a laugh, and he enjoys making others laugh, even when it comes at his own expense.

James recounts a story from when his brother was in high school and had just finished an impressive performance at the Boys’ Home International tournament. He celebrated the victory with his young teammates – perhaps a little too enthusiastically, as it turned out – and became locked out of the bed and breakfast where the team was staying. Half-naked.

He walked down the road about 100 yards in the pouring rain to the clubhouse and, upon finding an open door, slept the rest of the night. But he set off the club’s alarm in the morning when he exited through a different door, and the cops had to pick him up and return him to the B&B.

It’s clear that Johnston’s work hard, play hard strategy is deeply rooted.

“You would’ve been 17,” James adds. “Because Dad was there.”

Noel Johnston was the reason his son, Andrew, got into golf. A strong athlete in his own day and a general lover of sport, he put a club in his son’s hand from an early age and was with him every step of the way as Johnston ascended through the ranks of British junior golf.

Johnston’s father remained a model of health when, in 2006, he suddenly fell ill. Tests revealed an advanced type of brain cancer, and within a month he passed away at age 56.

The death of a parent can spark an unpredictable reaction. James shouldered the loss reasonably well, having already established a career and path of his own. But Noel’s death hit especially hard for Andrew, who as a teen had just lost his best friend and the man who had shepherded his budding golf career.

“I was only 17, and then it was like a bit of, ‘What do you do now?’” he said. “Luckily I had the support of everyone, my family and stuff, and they said, ‘Look, just keep playing golf. Keep going, don’t stop.’”

Johnston remained a top amateur, but the drive that had propelled him for years was missing. He had come unmoored, and he was still adrift two years later when he first met Reddin.

An entrepreneur who focuses mainly on sports psychology, Reddin took Johnston under his wing and the two have been together since.

“Without him,” Johnston said, pointing his fork at Reddin, “I wouldn’t be sitting here.”

“You lied to me!”

The entrees have just arrived to the table, and Beef can hardly believe his eyes.

The tomahawk is just as daunting as one might expect, with its large bone jutting out beyond the border of the plate. Johnston starts to take it all in and immediately accuses the waitress of false advertising.

“You said it was this big,” he said, circling his hands over about half the steak. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“You have to hit the bone,” Ashley joked. “I’m sure you can do it.”

As he reaches for his knife and gets to work, discussion shifts to England’s stunning loss to Iceland in soccer and Johnston’s recent fascination with Arnold Palmer beverages, the iced tea and lemonade concoction he first discovered in player dining at Oakmont.

“They had a whole row of them in the fridge, and I thought, ‘Oh my God,’” he said. “I grabbed two massive cans.”

When the brothers Johnston are halfway through their respective steaks, one of the restaurant hostesses comes over to check on the table. She recognizes Johnston from his visit the day before to Swenson’s, an Akron burger institution that had a food truck on-site all week at Firestone Country Club. Johnston had tried their famed galley burger, and a picture of the meal ended up on the front page of the local paper.

As was the case in Pennsylvania, Ohio can’t get enough of Beef.

Ironically enough, the Beef nickname has nothing to do with eating. When he was growing up, one of his friends noted that his bushy mane of hair resembled a slab of meat, and he started calling him “beef head.” The nickname stuck, and now it’s permanently emblazoned on Johnston’s left shoulder – the product of a few too many pints one night as a 16-year-old.

His notoriety in the U.S. also stems from his unique beard, which looks a bit like mutton chops gone awry. That’s a more recent development, as Johnston has kept it growing since September. It’s a phase that Louise hopes will end sooner rather than later.

“I was happy with it at first. But now I’m like, I want to get rid of it. It’s so wiry,” she said over her plate of reasonably portioned chicken. “I have to keep telling him that he has food caught in it. It’s like a chore for me.”

Johnston had planned to cut it off around the time of his win in Spain, but he opted against – partially because of the tournament’s outcome, and partially to defy a small streak of feedback he received.

“A few people messaged me, and one guy was like, ‘Your beard is bad for the game of golf,’” he said. “And I was like, well I’m just going to keep it now.”

“I was so angry with that person,” Louise added. The beard, it seems, won’t be leaving anytime soon.

L to R: Coach Shaun Reddin, Andrew Johnston, caddie Gordon Faulkner and girlfriend Louise Jay

Johnston is upbeat throughout the meal, but the fatigue from his hectic schedule is starting to build. His trip at Oakmont was unexpected, and he hadn’t realized until a few weeks ago that his win in Spain netted him a spot in the no-cut World Golf Championship at Firestone.

Johnston played in Germany the week between his two American starts, and he’s now in the midst of a stretch of eight events in nine weeks across six countries that will conclude with The Open at Royal Troon.

The miles have begun to add up, but it’s a scenario that would have seemed like a dream to him just a few years ago.

Johnston turned pro in 2009, but he struggled to gain status on the various mini-tours in Europe. After toiling with limited success for nearly two years, he was resigned to the fact that, at age 21, it was time to trade in his clubs for a real job.

“I went to a job interview, I don’t even know what it was for, and the woman called me back that same day and said, ‘We want you to come in for a trial week,’” he said. “The job was in London, and I was sitting there and I had a cup of tea. And I thought, ‘What do I do? I’ve got to decide right now.’”

Johnston finished his tea, called the woman back and politely declined the job offer.

“It was just in my heart, to carry on playing golf,” he said. “There’s no better feeling than playing the best events and competing. That’s what I love doing.”

Thanks in large part to Reddin’s direction, Johnston began to chip away at the mini-tours and had a breakthrough year in 2011 on the European Challenge Tour. He earned a European Tour card for the following season, but was slowed by a pair of injuries: first to his left wrist, suffered during a sparring session with his trainer, and then a more serious injury to his left shoulder that was misdiagnosed and ultimately cost him six months.

He returned to the Challenge Tour during the summer of 2013, afforded only a few opportunities to salvage any status whatsoever for the following year.

“I learned a lot from that five months of playing, because every week was a scrap,” he said. “Every weekend I knew that every Euro counted.”

Johnston did just enough to retain his Challenge Tour status for 2014, but as the year drew to his close his bank account was nearly tapped out. He was in Portugal that December when he received a late invitation to an event in South Africa. He scrambled to book his trip, intent on earning enough cash to make it through the holiday season.

“I think I finished like 18th that week, but it was just through sheer determination to try to get some money for Christmas,” he said. “I’d been scrapping all year, and I finished 18th and I thought, ‘OK, I can do this.’ And it gave me some confidence going into the next year.”

Johnston won twice on the Challenge Tour in 2014, earning the top spot on the circuit’s Order of Merit, and he hasn’t looked back since.

Ashley circles back to the table as the meal begins to wind down, and she immediately sizes up Beef’s nearly empty plate.

“One more bite,” he says with pride. “I’ve got this chargrilled bit that I’ve been saving.”

He polishes off the 32nd ounce of meat, then grabs the end of the bone and poses with it for photographic evidence of his conquest. After a few pictures are snapped, he holds it up to the waitress’ face like a microphone.

“Time for your interview,” he says as she begins to blush. “How do you think we did? How do you think the chef prepared this one?”

James offers a hearty laugh as he puts his fork down, unable to keep up with his brother’s voracious pace.

Content with his achievement – and pleased to have beaten his brother in this makeshift competition – Johnston scans through the sleek wooden box containing the restaurant’s tea selection and chooses one for his nightcap after swilling two IPA beers during dinner.

On his list of goals for the week is to catch up with Rickie Fowler, who sent him a note of congratulations after the win in Spain. The two had hoped to play a practice round together at the U.S. Open, but Johnston bristled when Fowler told him he planned to tee off at 8:30 a.m.

“I’m like, what’s wrong with you, man? Playing at that time in the morning?” he said. “So we just keep missing each other, off and on. Maybe we can play together at The Open.”

As the night ends, he invites yours truly to make a trip to North Mid on Aug. 12. That’s when he’ll gather with his mates – the same ones that so notably toasted his breakthrough victory – for the first annual golf outing to benefit the Noel Johnston Foundation.

It’s a cause dedicated to providing area youth with the same kind of opportunities in sports that Johnston’s father once gave to him.

The day after the big meal does not go well for Beef on the golf course. His driver is uncooperative amid swirling winds, and he is flummoxed on the greens. A 78 sends his name tumbling down the standings.

Not that you’d know it by looking at him, though. Johnston walks off the final green still sporting his toothy grin, responding to every call of “Beef” from the small throng of fans gathered along his path to the scoring trailer.

He re-emerges and signs a few autographs, snapping a selfie with a young fan sporting a “Beef” t-shirt who had driven from Pennsylvania to watch Johnston play.

Then he walks back across the short path to where several media members are gathered, including the Sky Sports television crew.

“I played like rubbish today,” he said. “But you’ve got to look at this, mate.”

Then he pulls out his phone, and his smile grows wider than usual as he shuffles through his recent photos with one of the British reporters peering over his shoulder.

“Look at this steak I had last night. Thing was massive,” he said. “She lied, she totally lied about how big it was going to be. But I finished it anyway.”