CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — In different places in St. Andrews—at the Old Course pavilion next to the first tee, in the giant corridors of the Old Course Hotel, hard by the Road Hole—you’ll see pictures of various Americans who have won Opens at the ancient links. Big Jack, of course. Bobby Jones, naturally. Tiger Woods—how could there not be? He is. John Daly? No, not that this reporter could find. Zach Johnson? Yes.
Tuesday night (if you can call half past five “night” around here), Zach Johnson was finishing up a practice round. His caddie, Damon Green, a professional golfer himself and a good one, was talking about playing in the Monday qualifier for the Senior British Open at St. Andrews. Johnson was talking about how his life has changed since winning the world’s oldest golf tournament at the world’s oldest course. “It hasn’t,” he said.
It’s funny: Zach Johnson is already done knocking on the door of the Hall of Fame: with his 2007 win at the Masters and his 2015 British Open win on the Old Course, plus 10 other Tour wins, he’s bound for St. Augustine right alongside Davis Love III and Fred Couples. The best thing a win here would do for him, he said after that Tuesday practice round, was help him secure a place on his seventh Ryder Cup team.
“That to me is the be-all and end-all, playing on those Ryder Cup teams, playing for your country,” he said.
It’s an interesting way for him to enter the weekend of this 147th Open Championship. After superb rounds of 69 and 67, he’s smack-dab in the thick of this thing. He’s 42, and he’s playing a course designed for mature decision-making, a course that does not require immense length. But far more than Kevin Kisner or Tommy Fleetwood or even Tiger Woods, Johnson is playing with house money. A win would be good, nice, fun, great. But it’s not going to change his life. After all, he won at the Old Course, and after that, he said, “I might—emphasis on might—get recognized at little more at airports. That’s about it.”
But what about all the customs that come with being the Open champion?
“I’ve heard they have a dinner for Open winners when the Open is at St. Andrews, but I don’t even know if that’s the case,” he said.
What about the custom of returning the claret jug to the officials who run the R&A?
“I heard they did a whole thing this year,” Johnson said. “I just handed it back.”
This guy doesn’t do hype.
He did define, brilliantly, what Open, links golf is about in his post-round comments on Friday afternoon:
“Everybody says you’ve got to hit it low, knock-down, punch shots. You do. You’ve got to use the ground. You’ve got to know where to land it. All of the above. But you’ve got to hit it high. You’ve got to hit it left. You’ve got to hit it right. You’ve got to hold it. You’ve got to turn it, use the wind. You’ve got to do everything.” You gotta do everything.
Woods said Thursday night (it was half past eight) that links golf is the best form of golf. He was saying what Johnson was saying.
Zach Johnson is the elite of the elite. He’s not in professional golf’s 1 percent, he’s in the .001 percent. He’s a future Ryder Cup captain. This week, off the course, he’s hanging with Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jason Dufner, Jimmy Walker. That’s a lot of golf talent, kicking around a soccer ball and talking about college basketball. (Kisner is in one of the neighboring houses, too.) But Johnson is the only one in the group with a win on the Old Course. The lifetime ranking in the house is Spieth 1, Z. Johnson 2, everybody else chasing. With wins at Augusta and the Old Course? It’s not even close. He’s in the club within the club, along with Sam Snead, Big Jack and Tiger.
Do you think Zach Johnson really cares if he’s low Johnson this week? He’s going to be low Johnson. Dustin Johnson shot 148 and missed the cut. Zach Johnson just might win. That’d be nice for him. It will ensure he’s on the Jim Furyk’s American Ryder Cup team. Nicer yet. It might complicate his caddie’s Monday morning plans.