Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 20, 2015

A Crowded Pack Of Narratives, But Just One Champion

As the 144th Open Championship, golf’s oldest major, unfolded through driving rain, gale force winds, and occasional moments of sun-splashed beauty at the greatest links course of them all, one could not help but feel sorry for sportswriters covering the tournament. Ultimately their job is to provide a narrative that clearly defines the event for their readers. When Rory McIlroy won both the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship by 8 strokes the storyline at each event was clear virtually from the beginning, and writers had plenty of time to prepare their reports.

But far more often in sports, and especially in golf where the event takes place over days, multiple narratives clamor for attention, with the decisive one not revealing itself until the last. Certainly that was the case this past week at the Open. Consider the standings and the potential stories after 54 holes were played over four stop-and-start days at the Old Course at St. Andrews.

With the final round pushed back to Monday for the first time since 1988, three golfers shared the lead at 12-under par, with eleven more sitting within three shots of the leading trio. Easily the most surprising of the three was 22-year old amateur Paul Dunne of Ireland. His 54 hole position was historic in itself, as it made Dunne the first amateur in 88 years to share a piece of the lead through three rounds of the Open. Should Dunne’s fairytale week conclude with him hoisting the Claret Jug, he would become the first amateur winner of a major since Johnny Goodman captured the U.S. Open in 1933.

Dunne wasn’t even the sole amateur dreaming of an improbable outcome, for among the crowded pack of pursuers was 21-year old Jordan Neibrugge. With a pair of 67s sandwiched around a 1-over par 73, the Oklahoma State junior was one of nine golfers tied for 6th place at 9-under par. But then again Neibrugge wasn’t the Jordan that most fans were trying to will to victory. That honor went to Jordan Spieth, the American still a week shy of his 22nd birthday who had already won the Masters in April and the U.S. Open last month. Spieth was attempting to become the first golfer since Ben Hogan in 1953 to capture the first three majors of the year. If he could do so he would keep alive the possibility of becoming the first golfer to complete a single season Grand Slam of the four modern major championships. After his putter got hot in the third round Spieth climbed the leader board, finishing in sole 4th at 14-under, just one behind the leading trio.

In addition to Dunne that threesome included Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Day. South Africa’s Oosthuizen dominated the field in 2010 when the Open was last played at the Old Course, finishing 7 shots ahead of runner-up Lee Westwood. While clearly comfortable at the home of golf, Oostie was one of seven players, fully half of the number within three shots, who were proven major winners. In addition to himself and Spieth, that list included Padraig Harrington at minus-10, as well as Justin Rose, Retief Goosen, Adam Scott and Zach Johnson, all at minus-9. Would the final round be a story of a golfer who parlayed their experience in the crucible of major championship pressure into another signature victory?

Or would the Old Course produce a first-time major winner, as it did with Oosthuizen five years ago? That was the hope of the 27-year old Day. The Australian sits on the most uncomfortable list in golf, that of the best players to have never won a major. A three-time winner on the PGA Tour, Day has an impressive track record at the sport’s premier events. At the 2010 PGA Championship Day finished tied-10th at just his second foray into major championship golf. The following year he was runner-up at both the Masters and the U.S. Open. In the ten majors played from the beginning of 2013 up to this Open, Day had three top-5s and two more top-10s. With a share of the lead at St. Andrews going into the final 18, he faced his best opportunity to finally break through.

Just as Dunne was not the only amateur with a chance nor Oosthuizen the only major winner looking to capture another, Day was not the only member of the dreaded “best to have never won” list with a legitimate shot. Spain’s Sergio Garcia was in the group at 9-under, having lowered his score in each of the first three rounds.

But perhaps fans had already seen evidence that this would not be the tournament at which someone on that list would finally move off it. For another member, American Dustin Johnson had been the face of the Open Championship through the first two rounds. Coming off his three-putt disappointment at last month’s U.S. Open, Johnson opened with a 65 to lead by one, and maintained both his position and his margin with a 69 in the second round, which took 39 hours to complete due to the intervention of Mother Nature. But just when it looked like the moment might have finally arrived for the lanky long hitter Johnson skied to a 75 in the third round. He closed with three successive bogeys to plunge down the leader board. In the end he matched that number on Monday, continuing a dismal trend. In the last five majors DJ has played the opening two rounds in a combined 31-under par, but the last two in a cumulative 6-over.

The first amateur to win a major in more than 80 years. The first single season Grand Slam. Proving that a prior major win was no fluke. Filling in the major gap on an otherwise impressive golfing resume. All of these narratives were alive and full of hope as the field teed off hard by the North Sea on Monday.

The fairy tale was the first to fade. It was as if Dunne arrived at the course suddenly aware of the improbability of his position. His opening drive was weak, his approach to the 1st green worse. A quick bogey set the tone, and by day’s end he wasn’t even the low amateur; that honor went to Neibrugge. The impossible dream hung on until the very end. Spieth was tied for the lead after holing a cross-country putt on the 16th. But a bogey at the Road Hole proved costly, and an approach to the 18th that rolled back into the Valley of Sin put paid to the single season Grand Slam. Moments later Day’s final birdie try slid just wide, ending all hope for the list of would-be first time major champions.

In the end it was a four hole playoff after Zach Johnson, Oosthuizen, and the unheralded Marc Leishman finished tied at 15-under. Leishman quickly fell behind, leaving the two previous major winners to vie for a second title. When Oostie misread putts on both the 17th and 18th, the 39-year old from Iowa had added an Open title at the Home of Golf to his 2007 triumph at Augusta. In a tough Open for the writers on the scene in Scotland, the Champion Golfer of the Year is Zach Johnson. But that does not make the stories of all the ones who might have been any less compelling.

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Responses

  1. Great review of the Open!


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