The Golf Nerd Goddess and I dutifully awoke at 1:00 AM Saturday to catch the delayed finish of the second round of the Open Championship. Well, that’s not exactly true – the GNG woke up while I remained in a semi-conscious state. In any event, this particular circumstance was driven by a deluge on Friday morning that resulted in pushing off the start of round 2 by three and a half hours. This led to about 20 groups unable to finish, although the good officials of the Royal & Ancient (the ruling body of golf in that part of the world that is not the United States) were urging the participants to play on in what looked to be rapidly diminishing daylight.
Whether or not the R&A would admit it, this decision was largely driven by the desire to have Tom Watson finish his round and receive his final sendoff. This was to be his final Open Championship and he was by no means going to make the cut. Again, whether or not the R&A would admit it, I’m sure they had no interest in making Tom Watson, five time Open Championship winner, crawl out of bed early Saturday morning and finish his round in front of 20 or 30 spectators.
[Earlier in the day, Sir Nick Faldo made his final Open bow, taking time to pull out from his bag the sweater – or “jumper,” as the Brits call it – that he wore during his first Open victory in 1990. While still fitting, it was also a reminder of the hideous golf fashion of the era. Then again, when ISN’T there a hideous golf fashion era?]
But the explanation given by the R&A – at least as it was translated from the official working with the ESPN broadcasting crew – was that players “had the option” of playing on or marking their place of play and continuing the next day, which seemed a somewhat malleable ruling. This had some players walking off the course while others pressed on. Pre-tournament favorites Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, paired with Hidecki Matsuyama, decided to vacate the premises after their second shots on the par-5 14th . Matsuyama chose to finish the hole. It was all very confusing.
Meanwhile, up ahead Tom Watson was, by his own admission, hacking his way to a bogey on 18. The grandstands had been long vacated, but the street bordering the 18th fairway (called, appropriately enough, “The Links”) was jammed with spectators, many of whom left local pubs to watch Watson end his day. He tapped in for bogey, doffed his hat in acknowledgement to the crowd, found his wife, kissed her and whispered in her ear, “It’s over.”
Not so for those who were trying to finish their second round – and as I shook the fog off from my sleep, I could make out commentator Paul Azinger stating that he thought what was going on was not fair. For a moment I thought he was referring to the previous evening’s activities, but no, this was a brand new issue.
It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that the wind can blow quite severely in Scotland, particularly by the seaside. Five years ago, play was stopped for about an hour and a half due to winds blowing balls about on the putting surfaces, which can be unnerving to a player standing over a crucial putt. Apparently, the same scene was playing out on the course now, except for the fact that no one from the R&A seemed willing to make a decision. Brook Koefka, part of the group that started on the 11th hole (which happens to be the highest point of the course) refused to putt. He was engaged in a lengthy conversation with an R&A official who wasn’t budging.
Meanwhile, on other parts of the course, play continued with farcical results. Spieth and Johnson returned to their positions from the night before, only to be faced with delicate pitches that would be impacted by the howling winds. Both players bogeyed 14. While this was going on, Louis Oosthuizen lagged his putt on 13 to about a foot and a half away from the hole. As he approached his ball to mark it, the wind pushed it even closer. Oosty was confused by how to proceed (in actuality, he could have marked the ball after the wind had blown it to the more favorable decision, as he had done nothing to make it move), and was waiting for an official to explain how to proceed. At this point, Azinger and fellow commentator Curtis Strange were imploring Oosty to mark the ball, but it was too late – by the time the official arrived, the ball was blown another 6 or 7 feet past the hole, at which point poor Louis doubled over in a combination of laughter and tears.
Finally, the R&A stopped play, but were roundly criticized for allowing the round to begin (Dustin Johnson was particularly agitated). The argument from the majority players was that once the complaint by Koefka was lodged on the 11th, play should have stopped all over the course. The R&A response was that the greens had been tested prior to the start of play and were deemed “challenging but fair,” but that the wind speed picked up once play began. In any event, play did not resume until almost 5:00 PM local time; the 2nd round finally completed, the cut line established, and the 3rd and 4th rounds rescheduled for Sunday and Monday.
The great Dan Jenkins had the last word on the whole mess when he tweeted, “I’m glad these R&A officials weren’t in charge of anything during World War II.”
Upon seeing Oosthuizen’s putt lip out on the last playoff hole, a putt that would have further extended an already exhausting 144th Open Championship, Zach Johnson seemed not to have any sort of reaction at all, other than maybe a grimace over poor Oosty’s misfortune. His caddy Damon Green – who earlier on in the day celebrated Johnson’s 18th hole birdie that put him in the playoff thusly – turned to high-five his man, but Johnson was in such a state of shock that he left poor Damon hanging for what seemed an eternity. Johnson could barely complete a post-round interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, so overcome with emotion was he.
I’m sure one could have gotten pretty long odds on a Zach Johnson win from the local punters. Since winning the 2007 Masters, Johnson has been a solid, if unspectacular presence on the tour. He’s not a big hitter, but on courses that require superior shot making, he’s always a threat (2 of his 12 career wins have come at Colonial, which was the domain of Ben Hogan). And he is very good at controlling his shot trajectory (or “flighting the shot,” as Azinger would put it), which is absolutely essential in negotiating the windy conditions that typically prevail on an Open course.
But with so many story lines coming into this year’s Open (Can Spieth continue his quest for the Slam? Can Dustin Johnson recover from his US Open disappointment? Can Tiger re-claim a semblance of his game? Who will get the bigger ovation, Watson or Faldo? Can Ivor Robson survive another Open without leaving his starting post?), Zach was pretty much overlooked as a serious contender, despite his opening round 66.
DJ was the main focus of the first two rounds; his driving prowess allowed him to blow by most of the trouble that the Old Course presents, and many pundits were ready to crown him after the elongated second round even though his lead was only one shot. He faded badly on the weekend and was never a factor afterwards.
Or maybe he did a body swap with Marc Leishman, who after just finishing inside the cut line, went on an historic tear by going 64 – 66 and might have won the thing outright had he not stumble with a bogey on 16. Still, he made his way into the playoff, along with this space’s pick, Oosthuizen.
Yes, our boy Oosty came back from that nearly 6 hour delay on Saturday to make that wind blown putt. His final round 69 was at times excruciating to watch – his swing, normally one of golf’s most elegant, wasn’t quite right; on at least half a dozen occasions, his right hand came off the club after impact. But he came to 18 needing a birdie to tie Zach and Leishman, and made a clutch 5-footer to join the playoff.
To some, the playoff seemed anti-climactic, due to the absence of one Jordan Spieth. Not that he didn’t try. He followed an indifferent second round with a scintillating 66, and, after backing up a nightmarish double bogey on the 8th (where he improbably 4-putted ) with a pair of birdies to put himself back in range, he arrived at 16 a shot behind (at that time) Johnson and Leishman. When his 40-foot birdie putt dropped there, it looked for all the world that Destiny (large “D”) had tapped the young Texan on the shoulder.
Of course, it was not to be – The Road Hole got Spieth, as it’s gotten so many before him. And he made a bit of a mess of the last hole, where a birdie could have gotten him into the playoff.
I’ve heard some claim that Spieth “choked,” and that without him, the playoff was anti-climatic. As to the first point, that is pure, unadulterated nonsense. Choking is a complete breakdown; Greg Norman blowing a 6 shot lead at the 1996 Masters and ultimately losing by 5 is a textbook example, as is Jean Van de Velde’s meltdown on the 18th at Carnoustie in 1999, where he totally took leave of his senses. Spieth’s missed putt on 17 and misplayed wedge shot on 18 were both thoroughly discussed and thought out; unfortunately, the execution in both cases was lacking.
As far as the 4-hole playoff being anti-climatic – well, Spieth stuck around to watch it, as did a lot of us, and it was classic, coming down to Oosthuizen’s try for birdie on 18 that would have sent he and Johnson back to the 18th tee had it gone in, which may have been indeed too much for a lot of us to comprehend.
So Zach Johnson joins a very short list of golfers who have won at both Augusta and St Andrews, and we’ll have a short respite before the season’s final major at Whistling Straits. Last year’s PGA Championship was the year’s best tournament. Given what’s gone on with this year’s majors, it will do well to be included in the conversation.