SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Have you had your fill of Beef yet?
The carnivorous crowds here at Baltusrol haven’t.
As the jovial, jiggling Londoner, Andrew “Beef” Johnston, lumbered his way up the 18th fairway under ominous skies on Thursday afternoon, he was welcomed like Springsteen to an Asbury Park stage. The inevitable cries were staggered at first — Beeeef! … one beat … Beeeef! … three beats … We love you Beef! To which Beef dutifully responded with a head nod, a thumbs up, or a toothy grin. When Beef struck a low-flying wedge shot into the green that checked up 15 feet left of the hole, the half-full grandstand behind the green responded with a more throaty, “Beeeeeef!” And when Johnston holed the ensuing birdie putt to climb back to even par in the otherwise sleepy opening round of the 98th PGA Championship, the thunderous “BEEEEEEEF!!!” that accompanied it was better suited for a WWE title fight than a golf tournament.
Beef has done for professional golf over the past several weeks what Jeremy Lin did for the New York Knicks during that magical stretch in 2012. Will it last? Does it matter? We’re in the moment. Golf fans and the press can’t get enough of the guy. (Forget second helpings of Beef — most golf-media outlets, including this one, are feasting on their eighth or ninth serving.) Even Beef’s peers are drawn to him. He’s the Pied Piper of the practice green. On Tuesday afternoon, as Beef strolled onto the putting green adjacent to the locker room, a steady stream of players, caddies and assorted hangers-on approached him for a fist-bump or back pat, stopping just short of asking for an autograph.
“You all right, man?” he’d say to his admirers, with big eyes and an ear-to-ear smile.
You have to wonder at what point the sudden crush of attention might catch up to Beef. A year ago he was a relatively anonymous and clean-shaven touring pro kicking around the wilds of the European circuit. Sure, he had the fun nickname, but not much else hinted that Johnston was on the verge of going all Kardashian on us. Then, a week after the 2016 Masters, a remarkable thing happened. After winning a tournament in Spain, he told a TV reporter, “I can’t wait to get back to North Mid [North Middlesex Golf Club], get hammered and see my mom and brother and spend time with them and just celebrate.”
OMG, a Tour pro said he wants to get hammered! Johnston would have drawn less of a reaction if he’d said he’d just orchestrated a peace accord between Israel and Palestine. “Get hammered.” It was the money quote of money quotes, delivered by a golfer who by this point had a beard so gnarly and knotted that it would make an Amish farmer blush. The video went viral, and when several days later Johnston made good on his promise clad in a piñata outfit (that video, of course, also went viral), the Legend of Beef was born.
Are you still with us? Let’s recap. Golfer with beard and cute nickname wins tournament. Golfer with beard and cute nickname says he’s going to celebrate by drinking copious amounts with friends. Golfer with beard and cute nickname actually does celebrate by drinking copious amounts with friends. Golfer with beard and cute nickname becomes cult sensation.
Golfer with beard and cute nickname comes to New Jersey to play in his first PGA Championship and receives the kind of greeting usually reserved for players who have won PGA Championships. Golfer with beard and cute nickname loves every minute of it.
As does everyone around him. That’s the thing about Beef. He’s the lovable sidekick from your favorite sitcom, and yet there’s no shtick about him. His rapport with fans, his accessibility, his joie de vivre — it’s genuine. All of it. You can’t not enjoy watching the guy.
After holing out for a roller-coaster, five-birdie 70 here on Thursday that has him five back of Jimmy Walker, Beef was run through a gauntlet of interviews: first Sky Sports, then TNT, then a pack of print reporters. He was he usual eccentric, charming, honest self. (On his erratic putting: “I had some absolute shockers.” On his misadventures at the par-4 15th: “Man, I hoofed it off the tee. Then I hoofed the next one.”) When the questions ceased and the crowd dispersed, Johnston made time for one more reporter. (He’s not good at saying no.)
The question at hand: Could the nuttiness of Beefmania possibly become a distraction?
Beef grinned his Beefy grin and said, “How can you not like it, man?”
Beef did say that he was “wary” of the hoopla around him becoming an annoyance to his playing partners. After making bogey on the 12th hole Thursday, Beef started to make his way to the next tee, not realizing that he was taking his Beef brigade with him. Recognizing the ruckus might disturb his playing partners who were still finishing up, Beef reversed course.
Beef also admitted that his fast-growing fan base cut into his practice time earlier in the week.
“I’m signing too much stuff,” he said.
How much stuff?
Beef shrugged and looked at his agent, Shaun Redding.
“I’d say two-and-a-half or three thousand,” Redding said, as in 2,500-3,000 hats, programs and plastic autograph balls. Redding wasn’t kidding, but Beef thought the estimate was off.
“More like 700,” Beef said. “But the number doesn’t matter.”
No, it doesn’t. Lest we forget, Andrew Johnston is here this week for same reason that Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson are here. To win. In the end, the only numbers that really matter are the ones on his scorecards.