St. Andrews, Scotland—This year’s Open Championship at the famed Old Course at St. Andrews showed a clear new direction for golf on several fronts. With the completion of this year’s third major championship the scene will shift back to America in August for the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. So what was learned?
Zach Johnson showed skills in the short game still matter a great deal. In winning his second major event, Johnson excelled in all areas of the short game—most notably for solid putting in making a slew of key putts when many had simply dismissed his chances with the start of the final round. In sum, while power provides an eye-appeal it’s attention to the details where scoring counts the most that still matters when earning a major title.
Dustin Johnson displayed vintage play over the first 36-holes by achieving a one-stroke lead at the halfway point. It appeared that the lanky and talented Johnson would finally show his prowess and overcome the poor finish at last month’s U.S. Open. Unlike his concluding play at Chambers Bay, Johnson simply melted down over the final half of the event—shooting a woeful 150 for the last two rounds. Johnson has shown the capacity to bounce back but Dustin needs to finally get the heavier and heavier monkey that’s been on his back for quite some time. The next major—the PGA Championship—will be at Whistling Straits and could provide the ultimate venue to show what he’s truly capable in doing. However, the memories of what happened to him there when the PGA was last there in 2010 when he inadvertently grounded his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole will still need to be pushed aside.
Jordan Spieth came up short on his Grand Slam quest but credit the Texan for gamely hanging in during Monday’s rainy and at times windy final day. Spieth made a longish putt at the 16th hole and it appeared that a par-birdie finish would snare The Claret Jug for him. Unfortunately, Jordan bogies the devilish Road Hole—missing a 9-foot par putt—and then played the final hole in a un-Spieth-like manner when his wedge approach spun off the front portion of the green and leaving him a most improbable birdie putt through the Valley of Sin. Jordan did not continue the Grand Slam quest, but he most certainly proved the point that he will be a force for the remainder of this year and for the foreseeable future.
Jason Day once again figured in the storyline on a final round in a major championship. The main thing that remained the same—he once again let a golden opportunity slip from his fingers in winning his first major event. Day did not play poorly but was unable to seize the moment. At the final hole, his wedge finished 30 feet from the hole and his putt was not good enough to be included in the playoff with Zach Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen. Day’s moment may indeed come but one can only wonder if the several near misses in other major events is building scar tissue that may hamper his desire to finally carry home the ultimate spoils of victory.
The rise of amateur players deep into the championship was quite refreshing and a clear sign of what is happening throughout the golf tournament scene. Amateurs have been well-prepared for the key events through earlier coaching, quality competition and a desire to break through the pack. Irishman Paul Dunne was the first amateur in 88 years to be in the lead heading into the final round. Although he faded on the final day with a 78, his play prior to the point was of a high level. The low amateur honors went to Jordan Niebrugge who finished in the top ten—the first amateur to do so since Chris Woods in 2008 at Royal Birkdale. The Oklahoma State player who is a rising senior played strongly deep into the final round—concluding with a two-under-par 70 and a tie for 6th. A likely Walker Cup spot is likely headed Niebrugge’s way. Ollie Schniederjans of Georgia Tech concluded his play with a final round 67 and a tie for 12th. He will be turning pro and will compete in the Canadian Open.
No hole in golf is more rightly celebrated and feared than The Road Hole—the 17th at The Old Course. As all the players were making their way when playing Monday’s final round, the focus on how they would fare on the most demanding of holes was center stage. The demands of the tee shot were only part of the issue. The approach had to be played with utter precision, making sure the ball would finish in just the right location by avoiding the menacing frontal bunker and the lurking road and stone wall sitting within easy reach for any approach shot with too much pace. There’s little question the hole is quirk golf to the max, but it works with its placement as the ultimate penultimate hole and that it’s involvement has been a central tenet of what makes links golf so appetizing. The Road Hole routinely plays in the 4.6 to 4.7 stroke average and the concept of birdies made there is indeed most fleeting. Surviving and moving to the final hole was on everyone’s mind—only a few were able to accomplish that feat.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.