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Thursday, March 4, 2021

Jenkins: Wild wind, wild day but calm Dustin Johnson leads British Open

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – There was some argument about whether the second round of the British Open was a natural disaster, or man-made, but one person didn’t care either way: the leader, Dustin Johnson. Nothing got to him, from an unfair start at 7 a.m. in gale-force winds that saw balls rolling around greens without being touched, to more than 10 hours of waiting around for the wind to die. Johnson kept his same habitual disposition through it all: sleepy-headed.

Johnson’s second round of 69, to lead by a stroke over Englishman Danny Willett at 10-under-par 134 on the ancient par-72 St. Andrews, was a two-day emotional siege. On Friday night his round was suspended by darkness after a three-hour rain delay, and he left off staring at putts in the nearly pitch-black night. He rose Saturday morning to shipwreck weather, with gusts of 45 mph that whipped the sand across the beach at St. Andrews, and blew his ball off a green for a bogey he didn’t deserve. He then had to endure a 10-hour 28-minute suspension of play while the rules makers at the Royal & Ancient dithered. Here is how he dealt with it: He had a nap. He did a light workout. He ate lunch. He had another nap.

“It’s nothing to worry about now,” he said. “It’s over with.”

The combination of tempest and boredom made other players furious over what they believed was mismanagement by the Royal & Ancient, sending them on the course at 7 a.m. despite what appeared to be visibly unplayable conditions. After just 32 minutes and a series of farcical scenes, such as Louis Oosthuizen watching his ball role five feet across a green without being touched by a human hand, the R&A blew the horn suspending play. In that brief time strokes were won and lost that could potentially affect the outcome of the tournament, which will not conclude until Monday.

By late Saturday afternoon, the sun finally came out and the wind died enough for the second round to be completed. But some players made their feelings known, audibly, during the delay. Bubba Watson’s caddie Ted Scott tweeted that “Every R&A official in player dining is getting yelled at. Lots of players p—-d in here.”

Ian Poulter didn’t get mad. He got even with a series of hilarious tweets sending up the R&A’s cautious and uninformative announcements, as they agonized on whether the wind had died enough to send players back on to the course. “I have no announcement to announce of the 11 o’clock announcement that is delayed by 5 minutes at the moment,” he tweeted.

Jordan Spieth, the 21-year-old reigning Masters and U.S. Open champion who is seeking the third leg of the Grand Slam, was clearly aggravated as he played alongside Johnson during their brief early-morning battle in the cyclonic conditions. The two men had both reached the front of the 14th hole, a 614-yard par-5, in two Friday night and had potential birdie opportunities as darkness fell. They couldn’t see well enough to finish, so they marked their balls and decided to sleep on the situation overnight.

But on Saturday morning as Spieth stood over his ball it vibrated in the wind – “wiggled,” he said. Unnerved, he three-putted for par, one of five uncharacteristic three-putts for the round. He swung his putter like a baseball bat in frustration. “We should never have started,” he said as he was ushered off the course, a TV microphone picking up his voice. He finished his round 5 under, five strokes back of Johnson. (Spieth is paired with Sergio Garcia for Sunday’s third round and is scheduled to tee off at 7:30 a.m. Central time.)

But no one had a right to be more upset than Johnson. He appeared to have a lock for birdie at 14, with just a chip shot to the flagstick. But his shot seemed to hit an invisible wall as the wind stopped it, and then it banked on an upslope of the green. “I chipped it, the wind kind of beat it down a little bit, and it hit the top of the hill,” he said. He stared at it in frustration and took his casual time making his way toward the ball to mark it. As he leaned down, the ball trembled. Then a gust pushed it all the way back down the hill, rolling it in reverse like a scene from a cartoon.

“My coin was about to hit the ground when it took off,” he said.

It was a potentially crucial two-stroke swing, from a birdie chance to a bogey. And if Johnson loses the tournament by a shot or two, it will be the fault of the R&A for sending him, and 39 other players, into an unplayable wind at 7 a.m. for 32 minutes that put them at an unfair disadvantage and skewed their scores. As Spieth noted later, “We’d have been better off putting in the dark.”

The great beneficiary of all this could be Willett. As play was about to resume Saturday evening, he was practicing on the putting green. He had completed his second round on Friday in comparatively decent weather thanks to the luck of the draw, and was unaffected. Told that players would retake the course at 6 p.m., he joked, “I’ll be back in bed by then.”

R&A chief executive Peter Dawson insisted that officials simply were tricked by the wind into a bad decision to start play at 7 a.m. He said that originally they deemed the course was playable, but that shortly after the first balls were hit at 7 a.m. the wind increased by about 6 miles an hour, “and that was enough to tip it over the edge.”

But Johnson said, “When they blew the horn to start, and then blew the horn to stop, to me the conditions hadn’t changed at all, it was the same. I think we were all wondering what was going on. I know why they did it, they wanted to try to get it in, get us to play as many holes as we could.”

In the opinion of Paul Azinger, the former player turned ESPN analyst, the real problem was the R&A’s failure to properly prepare the greens given the forecast of very high winds. The stimpmeter, a device that’s a kind of speedometer for putting greens, showed a reading of 10 for St. Andrews. Azinger believed the R&A should have used some agronomy to slow them down, tweeting, “If they were running at 9 they’d be playing golf today.” But Dawson responded that the R&A wanted to keep the greens “at what I would call championship pace.”

None of it mattered to Johnson, who showed no interest in the debate. What mattered to him was that he had responded by playing his last four holes in 1 under par, to take the lead alone. “We still got a lot of golf to play,” Johnson said. “It is what it is. I can’t do anything to change it.”

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at sally.jenkins@washpost.com

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