Less than a month after Johnson’s 72nd hole implosion at the US Open that let in Spieth for his second major of the season, their head-to-head was renewed on the ancient links of St Andrews yesterday.
And it is the 31-year-old from South Carolina who will begin today’s second round with The Open lead, following an opening seven-under 65, just as he did at Chambers Bay last month.
The big-hitting bomber bested the Texan tactician by two shots and heads the leaderboard by a shot from six golfers — Jason Day, Retief Goosen, 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie, Zach Johnson, Robert Streb and Danny Willett — with Spieth in a group tied for eighth that includes 2010 St Andrews champion Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and American amateur Jordan Niebrugge.
Niebrugge’s pursuit of the silver medal for low amateur will be of interest to the tournament’s leading Irishman, Paul Dunne, the qualifier from Greystones who sits nicely at three under and will now have ambitions of emulating Rory McIlroy’s capture of that prize in 2007.
And if Masters and US Open champion Spieth is to join the low amateur at the presentation ceremony on Sunday as Champion Golfer of the Year, he has a little work to do in his bid to equal Ben Hogan’s 1953 feat of winning the first three majors of the year. He certainly has absolute confidence in his abilities to believe he can get the better of his playing partner not just today but over the next three rounds.
“I’ve played enough golf with him to where I believe in my skill set that I can still trump that crazy ability that he has,” Spieth said.
“No, I expect when he stands on the tee it’s going to be up there miles and down the fairway. I also expect that I can birdie each hole when I stand on the tee. It just happens to be a little different route.”
Johnson has every right to be perfectly comfortable with the road he has travelled around the Old Course, and what made it even more impressive, aside from the eagle at the par-five fifth and five birdies in a bogey-free round was the way he rebounded from that three-putt at the last of Chambers Bay’s notoriously bobbly greens.
“You know, nothing bad happened at Chambers Bay,” Johnson said with a degree of reason many would lack in the circumstances.
“I wasn’t disappointed, really. I played really well, did everything I was supposed to. I couldn’t control what the ball was doing on the greens there. There’s really no bad feelings from that, only good. I played really well and then it carried over to today.”
That Johnson and Spieth were playing together added to the intrigue as they teed off yesterday morning, the former beginning par-birdie-birdie, the latter starting birdie-birdie-par. Johnson’s eagle at five was the first real separation between them, although Spieth drew level at six under with a birdie at the par-three 11th, only to give back the shot at the par- four 13th.
There was another rare blip on the greens as the game’s best putter bogeyed the 17th, slipping to four under, with Johnson having birdied the other par-five, the 14th to reach seven under.
And though Spieth summoned a birdie at the last, it was Johnson who won the day.
“I just got off to a good start, played well on the front nine, and then coming on the way back in, it played pretty difficult. I thought the only time I was really out of position was on 16 and 17. I made probably a 10-footer on 16 for par, and then a 15-footer on 17 for par. But other than that I had good looks at birdie all day.”
Suddenly Chambers Bay seems a lifetime away and it might as well be for Johnson. “I don’t really dwell in the past too much,” he said. “You can’t really change it, so there’s no reason to worry about it.”
There is a long way to go, of course, and this is still a wide-open Open, not only with 12 players within two shots of the 18-hole lead, but today’s expected change in the weather from benign yesterday morning to brutal this afternoon potentially having a huge say in the shake-up heading to the weekend.
A really tough day in winds forecast to gust up to 40 miles per hour could completely alter the complexion of this championship and the uncertainty left two-time champion Pádraig Harrington clueless as to whether his level-par 72 was a good score or not, coming as it did in yesterday afternoon’s stiffening breezes.
“I really don’t know how far back I am,” Harrington said.
“If you shot three under this afternoon it would have been a nice return, so I don’t know how much damage level par has done until tomorrow.
“Clearly if all those guys who are sixes and sevens (under par) move forward tomorrow, if they get a decent day, it would be hard to catch up.”
D Johnson (USA)
Z Johnson (USA), R Goosen (Rsa), P Lawrie, D Willett, J Day (Aus), R Streb (USA)
K Na (USA), C Schwartzel (Rsa), L Oosthuizen (Rsa), J Spieth (USA), J Niebrugge (a) (USA)
M Warren, M Jones (Aus), D Howell, G Owen, L Donald
B Grace (Rsa), D Lingmerth (Swe), R Langasque (a) (Fra), A Lahiri (Ind)
O Schniederjans (a) (USA), S Bowditch (Aus), P Kinnear (a), W Simpson (USA), A Wall, M Leishman (Aus), T Bjorn (Den), A Scott (Aus), G Chalmers (Aus), M Siem (Ger), S Cink (USA), R Karlberg (Swe), T Hatton, P Mickelson (USA), S Garcia (Spa), P Casey, A Levy (Fra)
R Fisher, R Palmer (USA), M Kaymer (Ger), G Ogilvy (Aus), G Delaet (Can), J Daly (USA), J Rose, E Els (Rsa), R Cabrera-Bello (Spa), S Lyle, K Kisner (USA), L Westwood, B Koepka (USA), S Arnold (Aus), A Chesters (a), M Kuchar (USA), B Watson (USA), J Morrison, H English (USA), H Fujita (Jpn), B Rumford (Aus), B Todd (USA), C Tringale (USA)
F Molinari (Ita), H Matsuyama (Jpn), C Hoffman (USA), G Woodland (USA), P Edberg (Swe), D Duval (USA), T Jaidee (Tha), M O’Meara (USA), J Walker (USA), E Pepperell, R Fowler (USA), B Wiesberger (Aut), P Reed (USA), R Ramsay,
J Senden (Aus), R Fox (Nzl), Hr Mahan (USA), A Sullivan, J Donaldson,C Pettersson (Swe), R Knox,
73: K Oda (Jpn), R Dinwiddie, M Manassero (Ita), D Berger (USA), D Lee (Nzl),
D Lipsky (USA), B Horschel (USA), H Stenson (Swe), J Dufner (USA), B Harman (USA), M Every (USA),
G Yang (a) (Kor), K Aphibarnrat (Tha), JB Holmes (USA), J Furyk (USA), S Gallacher, I Poulter, M Hoffmann (USA), B Snedeker (USA), S Tomimura (Jpn)
BH An (Kor), J Luiten (Ned), D Hearn (Can), B Curtis (USA), T Hamilton (USA), B Martin (USA), S Hend (Aus), R Henley (USA), J Moore (USA), A Balcombe (a), M Fraser (Aus), E Molinari (Ita), B Langer (Ger), M Young, G Coetzee (Rsa), V Dubuisson (Fra), Y Ikeda (Jpn), R Moore (USA)
S Kjeldsen (Den), T Aiken (Rsa), M Ilonen (Fin), T Takayama (Jpn), T Lehman (USA), J Blixt (Swe), K Bradley (USA), A Bland (Aus), R Wattel (Fra), B Haas (USA), M Angel Jimenez (Spa), J Hahn (USA)
T Woods (USA), D Brooks, T Watson (USA), T Teshima (Jpn), T Gillis (USA), P Larrazabal (Spa), R Jacquelin (Fra)
G Boyd, Rod Pampling (Aus), S Strange (Aus)
J Leonard (USA), K Streelman (USA)
J Van Zyl (Rsa), H Iwata (Jpn)
M Calcavecchia (USA), L Wen-Chong (Chn)
B Taylor (a) 83: N Faldo