TROON, Scotland – This 145th Open Championship will always be remembered for the epic final-round duel between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson, punctuated by Stenson's closing birdie for a 63 and his first claret jug.
But everyone knows a great main event needs an entertaining undercard, and this Open was no exception, thanks to the man they call "Beef."
This week, the cult hero-status of Andrew "Beef" Johnston wasn't born, so much as launched out of a rocket. The 27-year-old charmed crowds with his goofy beard, rotund physique and infectious enthusiasm. He also played some great golf. We've learned a lot about the man this week, including how he got his nickname, how he stamps his wedge with names of prime cuts of steak, and the fact that he can destroy a 32-ounce Tomahawk.
On Sunday Johnston played in the penultimate pairing, and for his final act at Troon he shot two-over 73, good for 8th place. He hit driver at every opportunity (why hold back?), piercing irons, and only a couple of poor chips and putts on the back nine prevented a top-four finish and invite to the 2017 Masters.
"I started off pretty good, but I don't think my short game was good enough today. I didn't putt that well. There was a better score to be had, but I gave it my best and that's what I come off with, so no regrets," Johnston said.
Later, he added, in true Beef fashion: "I'll definitely be having a beer tonight."
This round had the feel of a celebration as much as competitive golf round, and what most will remember are Johnston's interactions with fans. Here's a taste of the Beef experience:
- On the 1st tee Beef chomped a white golf tee, removed it from his jaws with two fingers like a cigarette, then reached for his driver. The crowd screamed his name. He pounded it in the left rough, hacked it onto the green and buried the putt for a birdie, sending a roar ripping through the grandstands.
- After busting another driver on 2, Beef was strolling up the fairway when a young voice in the crowd hollered, "Beef, you're the man!" Johnston walked over her way for a big grin and thumbs-up. The girl, 6-year-old Gemma Catterson, said she likes Johnston "because he's the best," further cementing Johnston's cross-generational appeal. Gemma then became shy and declined to further comment.
- On 4 Johnston mashed driver down the middle, and his playing partner, Bill Haas, sent his tee ball left near a throng of fans. When one spectator piped up to harass Haas about his tough lie, Beef turned from the center of the fairway and blurted: "Be nice to Bill! Be nice to him," which cracked up everyone within earshot, including Haas.
- On 6 he hit driver into a fairway bunker, then turned to his caddie and said, "Oh, man. Rubbish!" Even when he's angry, he still manages to come off likeable.
- Also on 6, a couple of Brits in the crowd began leading a chant. "Best of British...BEEF." I'm told this is a TV slogan for one of the nation's largest meat makers. "We also followed him yesterday and it was great fun," said Matty Hart, who came up with a buddy from Hull, England, to cheer on a fellow Englishman. "We came up with the slogan yesterday."
That chant seemed to play well for all of five minutes, when another fan hollered "It ain't easy being beefy," which drew an even bigger laugh. That's the thing about the Beef phenomenon. We're still on the way up here. It's all getting better.
- On 7 Johnston blasted another driver down the middle and, as he bounded up the fairway, began chewing on a snack from a small pouch. Stamped on the label: King's Beef Jerky. This endorsement deal would write itself.
- On 10 he made a bogey, but his mood didn't drop for long. During the walk to 11 he slapped every available hand that had been extended to greet him.
- On the box at 11, the toughest tee shot on the course, a train came barreling up the tracks as Johnston set up to tee off. Undaunted, he continued with his swing, making impact right as the train flew by. He striped it down the middle, and saluted the crowds once again.
On it went. Thumbs up and high-fives for all. When he walked off the back of the 18th, a teenager in the crowd hollered for his ball. As Johnston made his way off the stage, he flipped a perfect strike to the kid. And, scene.
What's next for the Beef? He said afterward that he's qualified for next week's Canadian Open, and will soon make a decision as whether to play. He also hopes to qualify for the PGA Championship. More good times to come.
Of all the enduring images from Sunday, one on 18 will be most replayed. Johnston knocked his approach onto the green and strode up the fairway, far ahead of Haas, took off his cap, raised his putter and saluted the crowd, most of whom stood and cheered.
"Coming down to 18, I'll remember it forever," Johnston said. "Just the noise. It stopped and it carried on. I thought I better put my putter back in the air. It was like that. It was just amazing."
In that moment, it felt like Beef Johnston had won. Maybe he did.