A few years back, researchers at an American university found that crossword enthusiasts had a significantly higher success rate with puzzles that were a day old (and which the sample group had not seen) than puzzles that were published on the day. The inference, if you like, was that, somehow, once a particular puzzle had been solved by people, the answers were ‘out there’ and, ostensibly, people found it easier to pluck them out of this collective subconscious.
Mull over that when you will, but the analogy certainly seems to apply to sporting feats, which would explain why records are always broken. It might take some time, but sooner or later, someone comes along, who touches the watermark and opens the floodgates for a wave that breaches that mark.
A fortnight back, at the Open Championship, Phil Mickelson announced his intentions by opening with an eight-under 63, equaling the low round in any major championship. It was just the third 63 at the Open Championship in 23 years (Rory McIlroy, 2010; Payne Stewart, 1993), but Mickelson’s feat was quickly overshadowed by the 63 shot on the final day by Henrik Stenson. That magic number powered the Swede’s overhaul of the American in what was possibly the most exciting Major duel the world has seen in decades. Mickelson was incredibly gracious in his post-round interview at Royal Troon, but there’s just no denying the incredible disappointment he must have felt at finishing bridesmaid, yet again, at a major championship. One can’t empathise with Mickelson because his litany of heartbreaking losses is unparalleled in the modern era.
Let’s not digress from the 63 though. Again, at the ongoing PGA Championship—the final Major of the year—unfancied Robert Streb became only the fourth player to post the magic number at what is, arguably, the tournament’s toughest venue: Baltusrol. Streb’s Friday effort equalled Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf (63 in the opening round of the 1980 US Open), and Thomas Bjorn who shot 63 in the third round in the 2005 PGA Championship. Streb has always had talent: he tied for 10th at this tournament last year, but has since lost his way, and hasn’t had a top-10 this season. At the time this column was written, Streb was tied for the lead going into the weekend with Jimmy Walker at a cumulative nine-under par, that matches the 36-hole record at the PGA Championship first set in 1983 by Hal Sutton at Riviera and last equalled by Jason Dufner in 2013. For a while, it looked like Walker would break the 36-hole mark: at ten-under at the turn with two par-5s yet to come he had his chances, but put paid to them by dropping a shot at the last.
Another player who flirted with a 63—before eventually signing for a seven-under 65—was none other than defending champion and the top-ranked player in the world, Jason Day. After an untidy double bogey on the seventh hole on Friday, Day went on a rampage, dropping seven birdies over his next eight holes. Day is sitting pretty three shots behind the leaders going into the weekend and, if he wins, the Australian will become the first player in the stroke-play era—that began in 1958—to win consecutive PGA championships.
But perhaps the most curious scene at Baltusrol this year has been the unprecedented popularity of, believe it or not, an English player with the American galleries. On this side of the pond, the English don’t really enjoy stardom with the fans: just ask Colin Montgomerie, who, for years, avoided playing in the States simply because he wasn’t, to put it mildly, cheered on by spectators. To see then the kind of mania that Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston has generated over the past few tournaments on the PGA Tour is beyond unprecedented. To be fair, Johnston is, in demeanour and expression, more akin to John Daly than he is to any of his countrymen. Sporting a long ginger-coloured beard, the affable and slightly rotund Englishman is very much the anti-thesis of the stereotypical professional athlete. No surprise then that Johnston counts ‘Long John’ amongst his close friends and has been waxing eloquent about the big American’s whisky-drinking abilities as much as his game. There’s not so much mystery about Johnston’s appeal: he’s an everyman, with a grounded sense of humour and earthiness that belies what he does for a living, battling with hyper-professional athletes who seem almost automaton-like in comparison. Golf’s most colourful characters have always had a sense of approachability about them and Johnston is no exception. In his first round at Baltusrol, he signed so many autographs during the round that he felt wiped out after submitting his card. “ I’ve just never got that much attention,” he said with no hesitation after the first round on Thursday and exuded that “…I’ll just have to figure out how to balance time with fans with practice time. I love meeting the fans.” On the 15th hole on Thursday, Johnston’s second shot hit a scoreboard and blocked his approach on to the green. Most players know the rules of golf intimately and use them to their advantage. Not Johnston. Unable to understand the rule being read out to him by the referee, he could not make a case for a free drop and proceeded to play the most outlandish recovery from under the scoreboard and emerged through the gallery much like a folk hero, slapping high-fives and waving at the crowd.
The biggest differentiator between the game’s all-time greats—Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead and the like—and the current crop of the game’s superstars has been the former’s ability to interact with fans. That’s what makes the game popular and that’s what fuels the sponsorships that pay for professional golf. That’s why Andrew Johnston is such a welcome addition to the PGA Tour. At this rate, the Englishman will have American sponsors falling over themselves to endorse his immensely likeable brand.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game