Zach Johnson: American triumphs at The Open after playoff drama

St. Andrews, Scotland CNN  — 

After a sloppy bogey on the previous hole he admitted it was as frustrated as he’d ever been on a golf course. Since yesterday at least. It also marked the turning point in his round.

When it did, Zach Johnson was the man who emerged clutching the Claret Jug after a three-way playoff to conclude one of the most dramatic and tumultuous incarnations in recent memory.

The 39-year-old from Iowa can now rest one of golf’s most treasured possessions next to another – the green jacket from his 2007 Masters triumph. It is becoming quite a collection.

Johnson shot one of the best rounds of the day to clinch a spot in a four-hole shootout alongside the 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, from South Africa, and Australia’s Marc Leishman.

His extra-hole tally of one under par proved enough to edge out his two playing partners and reduce a veteran of the PGA Tour to tears.

Asked how it felt to be 2015 Open champion he told host broadcaster the BBC: “It sounds beautiful. It feels almost surreal.

“I feel blessed to be champion and honored to be part of this history. To be with some of the names on that trophy – humbling and surreal are two words that spring to mind.

“It was a week of perseverance and courage and bravery. I can’t play any better than I did. I stayed in it and waited for the opportunities and fortunately I made a few.”

Since that 2007 win at Augusta, a tied third place at the PGA Championship in 2010 was the closest Johnson had come to doubling his major count.

But when the chance came around at the home of golf, he embraced it. This was not a tournament handed to him, it was one he seized.

Few had been talking about him prior to the final round. But of the top 11 finishers, his round of 66 was matched only by Leishman.

In the playoff he birdied the first two holes, before handing one back at the perilous 17th, where all three dropped shots.

But with a bumper gallery watching, he chipped close on 18 to put the pressure on Oosthuizen.

While his three girls played hide and seek outside the players’ tent, oblivious to the goings on 50 yards away, the South African’s putt slid agonizingly by.

So focused was Johnson, it was only when his caddy Damon Green embraced him that the penny dropped — he was the new Open champion.

Monday melodrama

As an epic fifth day unfolded, several contenders came and went.

One was Jordan Spieth, the man chasing an historic third straight major win. His chase had seemingly stalled when a four-putt on the eighth green cost him two shots.

But just like it had on Sunday, his anger provoked a response.

Back-to-back birdies followed, and when he sank a long, breaking putt on 16 to provoke the biggest roar of the week, his grand slam quest was alive and kicking.

But on his 72nd hole, the dream died. A poor approach set up a difficult birdie chance and when it missed, he’d forfeited his place in the playoff.

The 21-year-old looked distraught enough. His caddy Michael Greller spent 10 inconsolable minutes with his head bowed just out of view of the reporters who had gathered to interview his man.

Spieth, however, was already looking towards the season’s final major: the PGA Championship.

“I don’t know how many guys have done three majors in a year,” he told reporters. “I’m sure there’s only been a few. I know Tiger has done it, and I’m sure Jack has.

“So that would be the next goal as far as the history goes.

“Sights set on the PGA Championship, and from here I’ve got a couple weeks off now, and I’m going to go home and reflect – it won’t hurt too bad.

“I made a lot of the right decisions down the stretch and certainly closed plenty of tournaments out, and this just wasn’t one of those. It’s hard to do that every single time.

“I won’t beat myself up too bad because I do understand that.”

Desolation too for Australia’s Jason Day, the perennial nearly man, who was tied for the lead after three rounds with Oosthuizen and amateur Paul Dunne.

Seemingly always in contention he battled hard to stay in the crossfire before missing his own chance to join the epilogue.

Adam Scott was the same, briefly grabbing a share of the lead before falling away, at least less painfully than in 2012 when he bogeyed the last four holes to hand the trophy to Ernie Els.

Dunne, the Irishman whose Sunday heroics sent an army of scribes into investigation mode, was out of the running after only two holes.

With the pressure dripping off him, he took three to get over the Swilcan Burn on his way to a bogey at the first, before his tee shot at the second ended up on the driving range.

Starting the day at nine under, Johnson was three shots better off by the time he got to the fifth hole. When he negotiated nine and 10 in -2 he had, from nowhere, snatched the outright lead.

Spieth – favorite when the day began – faltered on the eighth, a brutish par three. His four-putt there seemed to have ended his charge, and he knew it.

Biting his arm hard after this fourth putt he threw his ball off the green and into the gallery. But just like it had on Sunday, the anger sparked something within.

He then registered back-to-back birdies, and when Johnson and Scott both dropped shots, his grand slam quest was back on the rails.

Up ahead Leishman stealthily staked his claim for a maiden major.

Birdies on 10 and 12 grabbed him a share of the lead, and when Johnson dropped a shot on 17th he briefly had a two-stroke cushion. A bogey on 16 soon took care of that.

On the last, in front of thousands of punters who’d paid a bargain $15 to see the final day, Johnson held his nerve to make birdie and clamber back to the -15 mark.

His caddy Damon Green cracked out the funky chicken dance as Johnson sank to his knees.

A nervous wait ensued for there was still time for him to be usurped.

Spieth looked like he might rise to the challenge, holing a monster birdie putt on 16 before a dropped shot on the fiendish 17th meant a birdie on the last was required.

When his approach to the last green span back into the Valley of Sin, his chance had gone and sure enough, his third shot couldn’t find the cup.

With Leishman safely in the clubhouse on 15-under, Oosthuizen needed a birdie on the last to make it a hat-trick.

And the 32-year-old, who galloped to the title by five shots the last time St. Andrews played host to The Open, lived up to his unflappable tag by doing precisely that.

His even-par playoff tally under intense pressure underlined his quality, but this was Johnson’s day – one eight years in the making.

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“Once I get inside the ropes, we’re just going to have our game plan and be ready to go.”