Professional golfers are creatures of habit. They thrive on the consistency by and large served up each week on the Tours worldwide. The wide fairways, the receptive greens, and a course setup that suits the commercial interests of the game’s manufacturers — power and the latest technology.
A penny, then, for the thoughts of the many players who have travelled over to the Open Championship at Carnoustie with high expectations, only to get an education from the purest form of the game, these past couple of days.
After two days of largely benign weather which yesterday included a little rain, it is already obvious that Carnoustie is living up to its reputation as one of the fairest and toughest tests in all of golf.
In an era where golf is largely dominated by power, it is skill and mental fortitude that are the biggest assets this week as the players compete against a fiery course and a constantly changing game strategy that can mean them hitting a wedge one day and a 3-iron the next for their second shots into a par-four hole.
In no other setting than links golf courses is there such a variance in course strategy and shot-making skills. On an honest course like Carnoustie, it makes for compelling TV viewing.
It perhaps explains why the leaderboard of this great championship is almost always dominated by tour veterans.
One such player is the two-time major champion Zach Johnson (US Masters 2007, Open Championship 2015). In an era of social media and pure commercialism, Johnson is far from box-office material, but he has long been better than he has looked, certainly better than several of his more-celebrated peers.
As a golfer, he doesn’t look athletic and he certainly can’t bomb it out there like so many of his contemporaries today, but what he lacks in physical talent, he excels in course management, repetition, and mental strength, winning regularly over the toughest courses. In basketball terms, he wants the ball for the last shot, relishing having to execute in those pressure moments.
His setup is noticeable for his unusually strong left-hand grip which forces him to square up his club with more body rotation and a pronounced extension of the shaft towards the target line. Those big muscle moves have also given him great consistency, which he uses to great effect.
On a course like Carnoustie, Johnson is forced to hit his driver and 3-wood more regularly than his fellow competitors but this is something that he is used to doing all of his life. The real strength in his game lies from 170 yards in and especially his wedges using them with devastating accuracy.
A lot of tournament golf is about controlling fear but Zach’s knowledge and trust of his game mean he never seems intimidated. He won’t take risks he shouldn’t take but he will relish the challenge of beating someone with a bigger game. His boring, mundane, diligent kind of golf works. It never quits — none more so than on the greatest stages, where most are overwhelmed by the moment.
Opposing Johnson over the weekend are far more powerful players with lofty reputations but none other than Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth have the pedigree or major championship success to truly worry Johnson. On a course like Carnoustie, the pedigree players left in the field as far as six shots back, like Tiger Woods, have a chance but only if they play truly exceptionally golf.
McIlroy’s efforts over the opening couple of days have been seriously impressive. Fighting the left-hand rough all day on Thursday, he showed great resolve to stay in the hunt when shooting a 69 but yesterday’s effort was even better.
Struggling early on, he again showed his big-game temperament when hanging in there — gamely chipping and putting his way round until the opportunities presented themselves. Two 69s and just two shots off the lead, he is now where he wants to be and if he holds any fair share of putts over the coming days, he will be hard to beat.
Tommy Fleetwood, on the other hand, is a man on a mission. Relatively new to these big stages, he proved his pedigree with a stunning final round in last month’s US Open but there is no doubt but that this weekend represents the biggest opportunity of his career. On form, the course record holder around Carnoustie has the ability to spread-eagle the field, but with a first major championship at stake it will be interesting to see how he manages expectations over the coming days.
What we do know is that the likes of Johnson, McIlroy, and Spieth will want to exert as much pressure as possible early doors by way of distancing themselves from the rest of the field. Fortune favours the brave, they say, and bravery this weekend will come in many forms. Regardless, after the farce of the US Open at Shinnecock Hills, the Open Championship at Carnoustie, one way or another, is once again likely to produce a very worthy champion.