For most people, it wasn’t supposed to end like that. Not this year. Not in 2015.
The Open Championship, pushed to an unfamiliar Monday, was supposed to end with Jordan Spieth rolling a sneaky par putt on the most famous hole in golf, a par-5 by all accounts this week, at St. Andrews after making one of his signature “I can’t believe he made that, but really I can!” putts on the 16th. Then making a three on the final hole of the third major of the year to continue his chase at the toughest act in all of sports.
It wasn’t supposed to end with Spieth standing over a wedge shot on the 72nd hole at the Old Course, making one of the few mental mistakes he’s made all season in the majors — missing it in the one spot you can’t miss it and giving himself a very, very unlikely putt to push himself into a playoff with two other unlikely names (who were eventually joined by a third).
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Nope. Not that way. Not our 21-year-old future of the game and face of a new generation who not only walks the walk but talks the talk as though he was preloaded with a PR cartridge before birth.
But this sport is the furthest one from perfect. It’s a sport judged on errors, not success. In the end, Spieth wasn’t able to do exactly what he wanted to do — just like Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman weren’t in the playoff. Golf doesn’t just elicit failure for most, it demands it — with only one person every week, and four times a year in the majors, leaving with a grin and a trophy.
That person at the British Open, of course, was Zach Johnson, the 39-year-old silent assassin who might be the most ruthless player in the world even though he appears the opposite. In Tiger Woods’ 2013 tournament, Johnson shanked his second shot into a hazard on the final hole when he needed a par for a playoff with the host. But he then holed the wedge there to force the playoff he eventually won over Woods on Tiger’s home turf.
On Monday, it was again in tough conditions on the second nine at St. Andrews where Johnson outlasted the rest of the field. After a front-nine 31, he battled and clawed and fought his way to the 18th hole, holing a bomb of a birdie putt to post 15-under.
The interesting thing about this Open Championship is how Zach wasn’t even the most talked-about Johnson during the first three days of play. That distinction belonged to Dustin Johnson, a guy who can do stuff with a driver that few on the planet are capable of doing. Chicks dig the long ball, remember, and Dustin is the king of that mantra. Overpowering St. Andrews has been the theme since John Daly and his mullet arrived in 1995, and it was supposed to be the theme this week. Dustin made it so for two rounds, but his short game disappeared after that.
And as tired as the saying is — and as many times as some 64-year-old with graphite shafts repeats it during your Saturday round at the local muni — this game really is about driving for show and putting for dough, and Zach, not Dustin, now has two major championships to his credit because when it’s clicking, nobody handles a wedge like the man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
So what do we do now? What happens now to our much ballyhooed youth movement in golf when a guy the same age as Tiger Woods wins a major over Spieth, Jason Day and what seemed like every amateur worth his weight in carry bags?
For one — and this is important — we thank Jordan Spieth. Not for what he didn’t pull off, as much as we golfers love to focus on the negative, but for what he was able to accomplish. Only three golfers in history have finished in the top five in all four major championships in the same season, and Spieth has a chance to join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler next month at the PGA Championship with another great week.
Spieth didn’t have his best stuff on the greens at St. Andrews. Five three-putts during his second round, a four-putt on Monday and that missed opportunity on the Road Hole 17th all come to mind, and I’m sure when he looks back on St. Andrews it will be the putter he feels just wasn’t as hot as it had been at Augusta National, or even late on Sunday at Chambers Bay.
But that’s the key to this kid. Spieth, like Woods used to, finds a way to contend even without his A-game. Must make a birdie on the 70th hole of a major championship when you’re going for three in a row? Sure, dead center, please. Must bounce back in the third round after an inexcusable bogey on the par-4 ninth Sunday? Yep, Spieth made three straight birdies to get himself back in the championship. All in all, he made nine bogeys or worse at St. Andrews and made a birdie on his next hole six of those times. Being talented is a blessing, having a short memory is a skill.
This run by Spieth has been one of the most fun few months of my entire golf journalistic “career.” Seeing him win the Masters was a changing of the guard of sorts, but his taking home the U.S. Open title and contending for all 72 holes at St. Andrews showed he is a different type of special.
At the end of the day, three guys, and eventually just one, outplayed him by a shot. It happens. That’s golf.
For now, we have a new two-time major winner, unlikely as Zach Johnson might be in that group. Winning one major is impressive, winning two means you’re a potential Hall of Famer, especially when you do so on the two most famous golf courses on Planet Earth.
Zach Johnson has done just that, and with his short game, and his fight until the last putt, he might add a third or fourth before it’s all said and done. I wouldn’t be surprised. Would you?
Shane Bacon is a regular contributor to FOXSports.com’s golf coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @shanebacon.