Zach Johnson will gladly accept not being the popular choice to win a second Open Championship as he seeks to make golfing history.
No player has ever won majors at all three famed venues of Augusta, St Andrews and Carnoustie, but Johnson can do so this weekend after a second round of 67 put him firmly in contention on six under par.
England’s Tommy Fleetwood is just a shot behind Johnson and Rory McIlroy another stroke adrift, but while they will command much of the spotlight and spectator support, Johnson will take it all in his stride.
“I don’t relish it. I’m just so wholeheartedly used to it,” Johnson said of his relatively low popularity among fans. “Maybe I’m just overly conservative and boring and that’s perfectly fine. I just like to compete. It doesn’t matter where it is, what it is. Just give me an opportunity.”
Johnson won the Masters in 2007 and the Open at St Andrews in 2015, beating Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in a four-hole play-off.
And the 42-year-old makes no secret of what it would mean to get his name on the Claret Jug for a second time after embracing the challenge of links golf, despite missing the cut in his first three Open appearances.
Zach Johnson is the clubhouse leader. Birdie on 18 sees him finish with a 67 and -6 at the halfway stage.
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 20, 2018
“I really haven’t given it a whole lot of thought because I’m so about right now,” Johnson added. “But the reverence I have for this championship and specifically that trophy, that Claret Jug… I’m not suggesting that someone doesn’t have a higher reverence for it, but I’d argue with them.
“I just greatly appreciate it. I greatly appreciate how the game was formed over here, how this championship came into fruition back in 1860. Everything about it I’ve embraced and I love.
“I’m not going to sit here and say, man, I just love playing in the wind and rain because I don’t, but I can do it, you know. I may not play well, but I’m going to go out and fight.”
For the third year in succession, Johnson is sharing accommodation for the Open with a number of friends and fellow competitors, first-round leader Kevin Kisner this year joining Johnson, as well as defending champion Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jimmy Walker, Jason Dufner and Rickie Fowler in domestic bliss.
And although he would be happy to foot the bill, this time there will be no repeat of the Open winner paying for time on a private jet service to take the housemates back across the Atlantic.
“We made an agreement that, if you win, you get the jet and you buy it so we go home,” Johnson revealed. “I think it (the cost) varies based on how many guys. My point is I didn’t pay last year. Somebody else did.
“I’d be happy to fork that over. This year a bunch of guys are going elsewhere so it’s not going to come to fruition. It’s not going to happen, but that’s fine.”
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A month after winning almost a million pounds, Tommy Fleetwood put a free umbrella to good use as he surged into contention to become the first English winner of the Open Championship for 26 years.
Fleetwood defied miserable conditions at Carnoustie to card six birdies in a flawless second round of 65, two shots outside the course record he set in last year’s Dunhill Links Championship.
“It’s no course record but it will do for today,” said Fleetwood, who recorded three birdies on the front nine and three more on the inward half, including on the daunting 18th to finish his round in style.
“Last year’s second round might have been better than this one.”
Fleetwood was the poster boy of last year’s Open at Royal Birkdale, the 27-year-old from Southport admitting the course was “forbidden fruit” which he and his father had to sneak on to when he was a kid.
An opening 76 left him facing a fourth straight missed cut in the Open, but Fleetwood bounced back with a 69 in challenging conditions to make the cut and went on to finish 27th.
⏱️ ROUND IN 60 SECONDS ⏱️
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 20, 2018
“Last year definitely was a bit more difficult than this year in terms of expectation coming very quickly for me and that was a home Open Championship,” Fleetwood added.
“At the moment I’ve put myself high in the world rankings and I’ve had the US Open just recently where I had a great result. With that comes expectation, and with that you have to learn to manage it and handle it. But at the same time it’s much nicer than having no eyes on you at all.”
That was the case as recently as September 2016 when Fleetwood was a lowly 188th in the world, but he reaped the rewards of returning to his former coach Alan Thompson and employing his friend Ian Finnis – the husband of former England women’s goalkeeper Rachel Brown-Finnis – as his caddie.
Fourth in the US Open last year, Fleetwood performed even better at Shinnecock Hills in June, finishing a shot behind defending champion Brooks Koepka after agonisingly missing from eight feet for birdie on the 72nd hole to equal the all-time major record of 62.
A first major title could now beckon on home soil instead and make Fleetwood the first Englishman to lift the Claret Jug since Nick Faldo in 1992.
“It would be very special,” the world number 10 added. “I can’t lie about it. If I could pick one tournament in my life to win, it would be the Open. I’ve never been anywhere near before.
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 20, 2018
“We’re only halfway through the tournament unfortunately. There’s no point thinking about the end game. Thirty six holes is a long time. Today’s been a round where I’ve put myself back in the tournament and I’ve just got to move on from there really.
“If I can hit it like I did today, then obviously I’m going to have a lot of chances coming in over the weekend and we’ll see where that takes me.”
As for that bright yellow umbrella which attracted so much attention, Fleetwood revealed: “We got one given for free actually. We don’t always carry an umbrella as we don’t have a sponsor. So it just so happens this week that we’ve got a nice Open Championship brolly. It looked quite nice.”
Kisner, who led by a shot after 54 holes of last year’s US PGA before finishing seventh, carded a five-under-par 66 to secure a one-shot lead over compatriot Tony Finau and the South African pair of Erik van Rooyen and Zander Lombard.
McIlroy, who is seeking a first major title since 2014, was part of a large group on two under par which also included Spain’s Jon Rahm, world number two Justin Thomas, 2015 winner Zach Johnson and the English pair of Danny Willett and Matthew Southgate.
Tiger Woods had arrived at the course with Kinesio Tape visible on the back of his neck, a worrying sign given the 42-year-old’s litany of injury problems in recent seasons.
But although the 14-time major winner visibly winced after hitting his opening tee shot, that appeared to be the result of getting some dust from the dry ground in his eye and he went on to make an ideal start with a birdie from 10 feet.
Woods, who has not won a major since the 2008 US Open, also birdied the fourth and followed a bogey on the 10th with another birdie from 35 feet on the next, but dropped shots on the 13th and 15th and had to settle for a level-par 71.
“I thought I played a pretty solid round and unfortunately didn’t take care of both par fives and hit (an) eight iron to both of them,” said Woods, who described his stiff neck as “no big deal.”
“The round could certainly have been a little better,” he added.
Kisner is sharing accommodation with defending champion Jordan Spieth, Thomas, Jason Dufner, Johnson, Jimmy Walker – with eight major titles between them – and Rickie Fowler, with only Fowler and Kisner still seeking their first major success.
But while Spieth slipped from three under to one over by dropping four shots in the last four holes, including a trip into the Barry Burn on 18, Kisner had no such problems thanks to an eagle, four birdies and a solitary bogey.
“It’s not intimidating at all,” Kisner, who also shared Spieth’s plane home after his victory at Royal Birkdale last year, said of his housemates. “They’re all great people. That’s the best part about it.”
Van Rooyen, who failed to convert a four-shot lead after 54 holes of the Irish Open a fortnight ago, carded five birdies and dropped his only shot of the day on the tough closing hole.
“It was playing as easy as it was going to play this whole week this morning, no wind at all, so you had to go out and take advantage of it,” said Van Rooyen.
“I was obviously a little nervous, you know, but that’s natural. I’m really proud of how I handled it.”
McIlroy hit just four of 15 fairways but pledged to continue taking an aggressive approach in pursuit of his second Claret Jug.
“I didn’t see the fairway much but as long as you don’t hit it in the fairway bunkers you’re always going to have a shot at the green,” the 29-year-old Northern Irishman said.
“It wasn’t pretty off the tee but I got it done and I took advantage of some unfortunate bounces. I would have taken 69 to start the day.”