Bearded 'Beef' turning heads at Open

TROON, Scotland — Saturday is known as Moving Day, the day players ride up and down the scoreboard escalator. Most of them ride into irrelevancy, but a special few find themselves in the only destination that matters in a major: in contention.

Phil Mickelson remains one of the few. Sure, he took the escalator from first place to second on Saturday, but he trails leader Henrik Stenson by a single stroke heading into the final round.

Mickelson is the people’s choice in nearly every tournament he plays, but especially in this country, where he won his first and only (so far) Open Championship in 2013. The Scots treat him as family.

But an unlikely name and shape has also captured the attention of the galleries here at Royal Troon. The new guy won’t remind anyone of Mickelson, unless Mickelson grows a beard thick enough to hide field mice, speaks with a thick English accent (North London, urban-ish, say the Brit writers who cover him on the European Tour) and goes on an eating binge.

His name is Andrew Johnston, though the Open fans here prefer chanting his nickname instead: Beef.

They yelled “Beef” as he made his way up the 18th fairway Saturday to a standing ovation. They yelled it as he sank his par putt for a 1-under-par 70, and a 208 total, which left him in fourth place and 7 shots behind Stenson. They yelled it as he slapped hands with fans who leaned over the metal railings.

And if you listened hard, you could hear his 5-year-old niece, Summer, yell, “Uncle Beef!”

The 27-year-old Johnston is a revelation, a golf no-name who is becoming a household name. He has game. You don’t find yourself in the next-to-last pairing of The Open by accident. But he also has a personality, and a 1-year-old beard that belongs at a barn raising or the James Harden Facial Hair Hall of Fame.

“My girlfriend’s not happy,” Johnston said. “She was like, `Yeah, yeah, I love it. I love it.’ And all of a sudden she was like, `Oh, look at it. It’s getting a bit long and this and that.'”

Johnston’s response?

“Oh, it’s too late now,” he said.

Don’t change a thing, Beef. Keep the beard. Keep the perpetual smile.

Johnston is one-quarter Jamaican, three-quarters English. He laughs as often as Vijay Singh scowls. There’s hardly a day or person he has met whom he didn’t like.

Asked politely how much he weighs (the man can fill out a golf shirt) and he said, “I have no idea. You want to pick me up?”

Eventually, he admitted to 16 stone, which is 224 pounds. He had a pizza on Friday night, “but it wasn’t like a 20-inch, ‘win-a-T-shirt-if-you-finish-it’ type of thing.”

No, but earlier in the week, a server delivered a 32-ounce steak to his table. Johnston hesitated, but then the server said, “My husband can eat it.”

“Challenge accepted,” Johnston said.

How can you not pull for this guy? He reads books to Summer before bedtime. When he chipped in for birdie on the par-4 13th on Saturday, he noticed his mom in the gallery. She was crying tears of joy. Beef had to look away or else he was going to cry, too.

He hit his first golf ball at age 4. He loved soccer and tennis, but he loved golf even more. So he eventually turned pro, and then he turned broke.

The low point was late 2013. He had a shoulder injury. He had earned a grand total of €880 (less than $ 1,000) on the European Tour that year.

“I was sort of wondering, what am I going to do for Christmas presents and stuff like that?” he said.

But then he made a little money in a tournament in South Africa. He grinded here and there for the next several years before his breakthrough in 2015. He won the Spanish Open this season, which now means he has plenty of money for holiday gifts.

So here is Johnston, The Everyman.

“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,” he said.

He happens to play extraordinary golf at times. This is only his second Open. The first one, in 2011, didn’t go so well. He missed the cut.

But this is different, even if Johnston isn’t.

Johnston was paired with Sergio Garcia in the third round. Afterward, Garcia knew he had witnessed the emergence of a crowd favorite.

“Any characters in our game are good, and he’s obviously a good player,” Garcia said. “But he’s a character. He’s a great guy.”

Golf can use characters. The more, the better.

As for the nickname, it is a result of his hair, which turns curly when grown out. A friend took one look at it and said, “It looks like a big bit of beef.”

That’s when “Beefhead” was born, shortened quickly to “Beef.”

These days, only his mom and girlfriend call him Andrew. They wouldn’t mind calling him Champion Golfer of the Year, which is what they call the winner of The Open. Sure, it’s a long shot, but Johnston is used to the underdog status.

“What is the point of playing if you don’t believe or trust yourself or back yourself?” Johnston said.

The attention will be on Stenson and Mickelson on Sunday. But everybody, even vegetarians, should save a few minutes to watch Beef.

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