In the absence of Ireland’s world number one and defending champion Rory McIlroy following his football-related ankle injury 10 days ago, Johnson, Spieth and their American compatriot Rickie Fowler will start the 144th Open Championship as the men to watch for a variety of reasons.
Spieth has arrived in Scotland in search of a third successive major of the season straight from his red-eye transatlantic flight that followed a play-off victory over Tom Gillis at the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour in Illinois on Sunday night. Victory here at the Home of Golf seven days later would complete three-quarters of a never-before-completed calendar Grand Slam and hand the 21-year-old Texan a place among the game’s immortals.
Players champion Fowler comes to St Andrews fresh from his Scottish Open win on Sunday at Gullane having finished Open runner-up to McIlroy 12 months ago at Royal Liverpool, one of four top-five finishes in the majors in 2014 that appear to make his ascent to the honour roll of major champions a near certainty.
Johnson, though, arrives only with baggage and a heavy payload at that, following near-misses and self-inflicted disasters at the 2010 US Open and PGA Championship and 2011 Open. That is an onerous cargo in itself but the 31-year-old piled on some extras last month when he managed to blow victory at the US Open, a three-putt at the last handing the title to Spieth on a plate at Chambers Bay.
Four majors have now gone a-begging and for a big-hitting player with a deft short game, Johnson really should have done better. Had he converted those chances his record would be on a par with that of McIlroy’s but instead he is just another contender.
Yet if there is one place for Johnson to rebound from that latest gut-wrenching setback in a major, St Andrews could well be it. He is no stranger to the Old Course, having played the 2010 Open as well as a couple of Dunhill Links Championships and he appreciates the challenges of links golf, fine-tuned once again by a pre-tournament trip to Portmarnock and Royal Dublin last weekend.
What is more, Johnson appears unaffected by the traumas of Chambers Bay, which were, he said yesterday, resolved by a night out that fateful Sunday with family and friends, including partner Paulina and prospective father in law, the ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
He also comes in armed with four top-10 finishes in his last six major appearances and a determination he has what it takes to finally close the deal.
“I think it’s very good, very positive,” Johnson said of his majors record. “It gives me the confidence to know I have what it takes to win. I think I showed that at the US Open. Coming down the back nine, I was hitting the shots that I wanted to hit. Unfortunately the ball wasn’t bouncing in the hole. You know, I’ve got what it takes, so I’m excited to get this week started.
“Every situation you can learn from. You know, it just depends on the way you want to look at it. I think every person is different. I try to look at them all as learning opportunities. Each one helps me get closer to actually getting a major.”
Johnson, who has not played competitively since Chambers Bay, will return to action on Thursday morning in the company of his “good buddy” Spieth and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.
Asked what he thought of the Texan’s chances of achieving the Grand Slam, his reply was succinct. “Well, I’m playing in the next two, so we’ll have to see.”
Following yesterday’s draw by the R&A, which will send off Spieth, Johnson and Matsuyama at 9:33am on Thursday, Ireland’s Shane Lowry will tee off in the company of South Africa’s Retief Goosen and American Kevin Streelman at 7:49am.
Greystones amateur Paul Dunne, a medalist from the Woburn qualifier for the second year running, is the first Irishman off in the second group, beginning his first round at 6:43am alongside former champion Todd Hamilton and another American James Hahn.
Graeme McDowell tees off at 8:22am in the company of fellow former US Open winner Webb Simpson and US amateur Oliver Schniederjan while Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champion, gets his championship under way an hour later at 9:22. Two-time champion Pádraig Harrington is the last of the five-strong Irish contingent to begin his week’s work, going out at 12:39 with Scotland’s Marc Warren and China’s Wenchong Liang.