ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Dustin Johnson hit straight through the blustering atmosphere at St. Andrews, the black clouds deepening the dusk and insistent gusts bowing the flagsticks and making his pant legs shudder. There was a leader safe and warm in the clubhouse in Englishman Danny Willett, and then there was another unfinished, ongoing contest in the British Open: the muscular wrestling match between Dustin Johnson and the wind. As dark fell, Johnson was winning.
Johnson blasted his golf ball so far down the fairways that it seemed to diminish St. Andrews and defy the fierce Scottish weather. The lanky Johnson is playing the ancient par-72 Old Course with massive drives and short wedges that practically turn it into miniature golf at times. The rain blew sideways with wind gusts as strong as 45 mph, yet when the second round was finally suspended at 10 p.m. local time for lack of light, Johnson had made four birdies to stand alone at 10 under par through 13 holes, and had bogeyed just once in the entire tournament. He was due to complete his remaining five holes Saturday beginning at 7 a.m. (1 a.m. Central time).
“I’m in a good spot,” he said. “Definitely got tricky this afternoon, all day. Even the front side, the wind was howling, and it was blowing straight left to right pretty much. It played tough all day.”
The question is whether Johnson can continue to hit it straight in the squalling weather that plagued the tournament Friday and was due to continue into Saturday morning, or whether it and the jeopardies of St. Andrews – the vault-like bunkers and man-sized gorse bushes – eventually will make him pay.
“You’ll see this course take its toll,” five-time champion Tom Watson promised.
A heavy morning rainstorm robbed the day of its normal rhythm, and also robbed Watson of a proper stage for his final farewell from the British Open after 38 appearances. Play was delayed for 3 hours 18 minutes, with so much standing water on the course that bunkers became ponds and seagulls bathed in lakes on the fairways. By the time course attendants cleared the grounds with squeegees and push brooms, Watson’s tee time had been pushed to almost 5 p.m.
When he at last climbed on the famed Swilcan Bridge approach to the 18th hole, it was nearly 10 p.m. with just a dim blue light remaining.
Johnson, playing with Masters and U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, did not tee off until 5:48 p.m., and by the time they made the shepherd’s crook loop at the ninth hole, they were so wind-whipped and chilled that Spieth donned a wool cap and mittens. At the par-3 11th, the gusts were so stiff they shook the 6-foot-4 Johnson out of his stance over a short par putt. He reset – and missed, horse-shoeing the putt for his first bogey. “Long day,” Johnson said.
No one’s day was longer than that of the surprising clubhouse leader Willett, a 27-year-old from Sheffield with a thick Yorkshire accent. He’s an athletic wildflower, son of a vicar and a math teacher, who were fairly oblivious to what he was doing with his Friday. His mother texted him, “Well done, you’ve made the cut.”
Willett was concerned that the weather report for gale-like conditions could mean “Armageddon” for his chances, and he rose at 5 a.m. and watched the deluge from his hotel window. Then he went back to bed for an hour. “It’s one of them sitting and waiting games isn’t it?” he said. He finally teed off just before lunchtime and managed to lay down a round of 69 in some of the less horrendous weather of the day.
Now that Willett has worked himself on to the leader board, it may be hard to dislodge him. He has a history of playing St Andrews extremely well: His past 10 rounds here have been: 67, 67, 65, 72, 66, 70, 68, 69, 66, 69, for a combined 41 under par. He came to St. Andrews second on the European Tour money list this season.
While he lacks the quicksilver reputation of Rory McIlroy, with whom he played some teenaged golf, he was the No.1 amateur in the world in 2007. His development as a pro was somewhat slowed by his decision to spend two years playing college golf at Jacksonville State, and an edema on his spine that required 18 months of rehabilitation. Though he missed the cut in four of the previous nine majors he has entered, he does not lack for belief in himself.
“The golf game has been there for a while,” he said Thursday after an opening-round 66. “The more you play with the guys, the more you realize that they don’t do things a great deal better than you, if not at all. The more you’re in and around this atmosphere and in and around this kind of golf, the more realize that actually, yeah, I’m pretty equipped to do pretty well out here.”
Still, a Yorkshireman has never won the British Open, and Willett had never been better than tied for 11th after any round of a major.
“Looking up there, it’s still a little bit surreal,” he admitted Friday. “But something I’m going to have to get used to; otherwise no point in being up there.”
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org