By Dan Reardon
Of golf’s four majors, the Open Championship probably has the most international field. The Masters is too small. The U.S. Open is too American. And the PGA Championship is only professionals. Such an eclectic field each year means American viewers who tune in during the early-morning hours are usually introduced to a player flashing on the leaderboard whom they know little or nothing about.
Sometimes the tournament sidebar is someone like Justin Rose, who is precociously successful that week but only returns to prominence years later after seasoning their game. Sometimes they are more like last year’s 54-hole sensation, amateur Paul Dunne of Ireland, now plodding along on the European Tour, missing more weekends than he is making. At last year’s Open at St. Andrews, a rising Englishman visited the interview room to talk about his performances on a leaderboard cluttered with golf’s elite. Danny Willett didn’t cause heads to turn until nine months later at Augusta.
This year’s discovery has to be Andrew Johnston, an unlikely young Brit with a beard reminiscent of an extra from the cast of The Revenant. While television focused on the Stenson-Mickelson pairing for two days, Johnston was the go-to cutaway. The darling of the galleries at Troon, Johnston is England’s answer to Boo Weekley.
In the ‘other’ tournament last week at Troon — the chase for third — Johnston, playing in only his second Open, was trading positions at 7-under par as late as Sunday’s front nine. Then some sketchy putting on the inward half dropped him to eighth at 3-under.
His top 10 in the Open was his first in three career majors, but the 27-year-old has been rising in 2016 after a sleepy professional career. As a youngster, Johnston enjoyed some success in Britain’s junior ranks. But his professional performances were modest until he posted two wins in 2014 on the Challenge Tour, Europe’s equivalent of Web.com.
In April, he crashed the big party in Spain to win the Real Club Valderrama Open de España and promptly announced his plans to celebrate by “getting drunk.” He qualified for his first U.S. appearance, the U.S. Open at Oakmont, and upon arrival was asked how he would celebrate a win. His response was to exponentially scale up the celebration to staying drunk for a week.
To talk about Andrew Johnston’s golf is almost beside the point. Obviously Johnston can play, but what has already carved out his niche for now is his ability to charm. And it starts with the name all but a couple call him — Beef. He has it etched in nine different ways on his wedge. He hears it chanted as he walks golf fairways. The nickname originated from his boyhood and his unmanaged curly locks.
He plays the game with a smile, and the gallery chants are not unnoticed. “Yeah, if someone shouts my name out and stuff and has some fun, I’m going to acknowledge it and maybe have a laugh back, man, because that’s just the way I am. I guess that’s the way I’ve been brought up in my golf club. Everyone just sort of has a bit of banter and has fun.” And he does have fun. How many players can you name who tweeted a picture of himself exploding a hamburger with his driver?
Johnston is careful to not cross over the line, to not John Daly his career. He respects the traditions of his profession but tries to balance who he is with what the game expects. “All the players are different. Some of them like to be quiet on the course. Some of them like to be a bit different, and that’s the first thing I say. So they’ve got to do what they’re comfortable with first of all. Then I don’t want to break any traditions and stuff like that at all. I just want to sort of be myself, go out and enjoy it and acknowledge the crowds.”
That same philosophy is what Johnston offers to his followers as they play the game. “Just have fun, man. Just play with your mates, do what you want to do. You see it at my golf club. People want to play and practice and get their handicaps down. Obviously had a hard week at work and they want to go out and have a few beers and stuff on the course. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing either. As long as everyone’s kind of playing and having fun in their own way, and I think that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Years ago a fast food chain hit on an advertising slogan built around an octogenarian looking into the camera and demanding, “Where’s the beef?” Next week at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, fans should check the pairings sheet to answer that same question.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.