It’s not as if Andrew Johnson is trampling over players as he makes his way to join the likes of Jason Day and his namesake Dustin at the front of golf’s rankings. Midway through September he was still sitting at No 80 in the world, some six places lower than his highest ranking. And he didn’t make the European team for the Ryder Cup.
So, what is it about Johnson that has made him one of the most talked-about players in the game?
He was asked exactly that at the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon, where he leapt into the public consciousness with his first top-10 finish in a Major. ‘I have no idea,’ the London-born 27-year-old said. ‘I guess I’m just really down to earth, and at the end of the day, I’m just a normal guy who happens to play golf. I’m no different to anyone else.’
Ah, but that’s the point. Johnson is different.
These days, ‘normal’ golfers don’t go into a pub and get handed a club and then start doing an impromptu golf lesson with the patrons, while having a pint. And ‘normal’ golfers don’t have a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Normal’ golfers don’t attempt a spectacular running chest-bump with a friend after hitting a hole-in-one. Nor do ‘normal’ golfers eat a hamburger while doing a magazine shoot and then teeing up the burger and hitting it with a driver.
Day, the world No 1, describes the bearded Londoner as ‘looking like a top bloke. He looks like a guy you want to go down to the pub and have a beer with, even if you don’t drink.
‘It’s good to see stories like that and I’m hoping he keeps the good play up, because I think we need more personalities in this game.’
Well, the man the world now know simply as ‘Beef’ has the personality that lights up a room. Even the bad days are good for a golfer who has probably signed more autographs and thrown away more balls into the crowds over the past year than anyone else on tour.
Here’s a player who has one European Tour win under his belt – at this year’s Spanish Open – but he’s one of the first names on the tee-sheets the public look for when he enters a tournament.
Johnson has been compared to John Daly, the wild-living American who went on to win two Majors, but had the talent to win 10 if he stayed focused on his game and not the distractions outside the ropes. In fact, Johnson is probably the first golfer since Daly to attract such attention on and off the course.
Which made it a marriage made in heaven when the Englishman, then 23, introduced himself to Daly at the 2012 BMW International Open in Germany.
‘I read your book,’ Beef told Daly. ‘I’m a big fan.’
‘Cool,’ replied Daly. And that was that.
In 2015 the friendship accelerated from that slow start. They were paired during the second round of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at Carnoustie. ‘He kicked my ass,’ Daly said. He’d shot 81, Johnson had carded a 76 – they weren’t exactly shooting the lights out.
Four weeks later, they met up at the Turkish Airlines Open. ‘He thought he could drink whisky like me,’ Daly said. ‘And that didn’t pan out too good. It was so funny. He came over to the hotel, we just started drinking and listening to music. He tried to keep up – and he just couldn’t.
‘He’s a people person,’ Daly said. ‘He loves people and he loves them to root for him. That’s just the way I was. To get the crowd on your side, it’s not like you have to try real hard. You just got to be nice and try to sign as many autographs as you can and wave to them. That’s all they want.’
After that sole victory on the European Tour in Spain, Johnson told the media: ‘I can’t wait to get back to North Mid [North Middlesex Golf Club], get hammered and see my mom and brother and spend time with them and just celebrate.’
That’s a fairly normal reaction, but so honest that it’s rare for today’s professional to say something like that on the record. But, what you see is what you get with the Englishman.
And celebrate he did. ‘I drank pretty much everything. I’d say like 60, 70% beer, and like some champagne … then my golf club made sangria, so I was drinking sangria. And then shots and stuff.’
The nickname ‘Beef’ was coined when he was 12 and he has dined out on it since turning professional.
‘My hair was a lot curlier then — I guess it’s thinning out a bit from stress — and it stuck out like an afro. I was out playing the course here when one of the older guys, Mark Kniller, shouted across: “Hey Andrew, what’s happening with your hair? You look like you’ve got a Beef Head.” I’ve been known as Beef ever since.’
Given he’s not one of the slimmer guys on tour, a man comfortable in his own clothing just like Daly was – ‘I don’t know how much I weigh, but try pick me up and I don’t think you would be able to,’ he once told a reporter – there is a perception that ‘Beef’ also alludes to his penchant for food.
The golfer has downplayed that theory. ‘Some people think all I ever eat is red meat – mostly raw – but that’s not true. I’d be the size of a house if I did!
‘I try to eat healthily – scrambled eggs or porridge and fruit for breakfast, fish, chicken or pasta for lunch and the same type of thing for dinner. My problem is I’m a compulsive comfort eater.
‘When I’m on the road it’s takeaways and junk food and at home I do love a good barbecue. One of my mates sent me a picture of the brisket he was cooking on the BBQ. I couldn’t wait to get stuck into that big boy!’
It was in that pub in London where Beef showed there was more to him than being a cartoon-like character, who happens to play golf for a living. There he was, with his Cockney accent, gripping a wedge in the confined space of the pub, dressed in a black T-shirt and wearing a baseball cap.
‘How do you play a high, soft wedge shot?’ he was asked. Beef repeated the question as he prepared his response. ‘I go forward in my stance, stay strong in the wrist, keep the loft going through … I don’t want wrists coming over.’
Another question: ‘A lot of players have the chipping yips. What’s the best way to smooth that out?’
‘Take your wrist out of it, and turn through fully when you play the shot,’ came the reply with an instruction.
And another: ‘Average players struggle in bunkers. How can we average players improve in that area?’
‘Don’t be afraid to open the face of the club in the bunker and don’t be afraid to take sand. If you’re going to hit a chip shot 60m you’re not going to play a half shot. So, when you’re in the bunker, play a full shot with an open clubface, don’t be afraid to take sand and be sure to turn and finish like you would with a chip shot.’
He admitted that among his 14 clubs in his bag are four wedges. ‘It used to be three, but now I’ve added another one, which gives me so many more options around the green … I can hit it high and spin back to the pin with one, another I can pitch on to the green and let it roll up to the hole … there is no right or wrong way to play a chip shot … whichever is the best way for the individual is the right way.’
Suddenly, it all makes perfect sense. In an age where innovation is coached out of players by swing instructors, there is very little room for originality. One imagines that if the late Seve Ballesteros was in his twenties or thirties today, he’d be a run-of-the-mill player, because one of the majestical features about the Spanish genius was his ability to manufacture shots that were nowhere to be seen in an instruction manual. As Johnson said, ‘There is no right way or wrong way, whatever works best for the individual is the best way’.
Johnson has spent more than half his life being called Beef and reckons that’s the way he likes it. ‘Only my mum and my girlfriend call me Andrew’, and he has endeared himself to fans as the people’s champion with his engaging smile and down-to-earth approach.
The Englishman lost his dad to cancer 10 years ago this November and not too long afterwards he had a ‘Beef Head’ tattoo inked on his shoulder. ‘I was in Thailand with my friend, and we were over there for like two months. I was 18, 19 when I went. We’d had a lot to drink, we’d be watching soccer, and I lost him in the night. And then I woke up and I roll over on my shoulder and I was, “Aha, what is that?”’
So much for ‘a normal guy who happens to play golf. I’m no different to anyone else’.
END-OF-YEAR WORLD RANKING
(As at 19 September)
Le Vaudreuli Golf Challenge (1st), Scottish Hydro Challenge (1st), Kazakhstan Open (2nd), Alfred Dunhill Championship (3rd), Azerbaijan Challenge Open (T3rd)
Spanish Open (1st), European Masters (3rd), Qatar Masters (T4th), BMW PGA Championship (T7th), The Open Championship (8th)