SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – In an answer to one of Madison Avenue’s everlasting questions, Englishman Andrew Johnston is at Baltusrol Golf Club this week, continuing his unforgettable summer at the 98th PGA Championship.
Last weekend, he critiqued burgers and sold roast beef sandwiches in Manhattan. On Thursday, he tees off in nearby New Jersey at his third consecutive major championship. Come September, could a 27-year-old man suddenly and simply known worldwide as “Beef” play for the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska?
Burly, bearded and fully thrust into fame with an eighth-place finish at the British Open only two weeks ago, he’s the longest of long shots, no doubt. He’s well down the determining points list for a European team that currently has five Ryder Cup rookies — including Masters champion Danny Willett — among its top nine automatic qualifying spots while captain Darren Clarke seeks experience and age to balance his roster with three captain’s picks.
“That’s quite a way away for me,” Johnston said Wednesday. “I need a good week.”
A product of the same international amateur team competition that produced Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald, Johnston turned pro in 2009 and played on a variety of mini-tours across Europe to Asia before he broke through with a European Tour victory at Spain’s national open in April.
He said he was too poor only a few years ago to afford Christmas presents and now he has won more than $1 million this season on the European tour and with a 54th-place finish at June’s U.S. Open.
Now, he has a freshly signed endorsement deal with Arby’s — naturally — and needed 4½ hours Tuesday to play 11 practice holes at Baltusrol because of new adoring fans who bellowed out his nickname and sought autographs from golf’s new folk hero. He grew his beard out bushy in the last year. His longtime girlfriend originally approved, but she suggested he shave it to deal with this week’s heat, which hit 100 degrees one day.
“The beard’s the beard, man,” he said. “You’ve got to deal with it.”
The working-class son of a former bus driver and school lunchroom lady, Johnston has been called Beef since childhood. That’s when a friend looked at his big head and curly hair — he says he’s a quarter Jamaican — and decided it looked like “a bit of beef.”
Somewhere along the way, Beefhead was shortened to just Beef, the name stitched on the back of his golf cap.
On Saturday, Beef served beef to Arby’s customers in New York City, handing out orders because he said he was too scared to assemble sandwiches.
“I was just putting the stuff in the bag and shouting out people’s names,” he said. “That was probably the most fun.”
In a sport with so many players and personalities seemingly the same, Johnston is someone decidedly different, thanks to the beard, the bulk, the Beef and a spirit seemingly unsuitable for a collared shirt.
“Beef, I’ve met him once,” defending PGA champion, world No. 1-rated and Australian Jason Day said about a U.S. Open encounter at Oakmont when Johnston sought his autograph. “He looks like a top bloke. Looks like a guy you want to go down to the pub and have a beer with, even if you don’t drink.”
No wonder, then, Johnston promised the day he won in Spain he’d go home to England to “get hammered and see my mum.” He showed up days later at a victory celebration dressed as a vibrantly colored piñata.
“Just be yourself, man,” he said Wednesday when asked by a reporter what advice he has for schoolchildren who are teased, “because the more I’ve been myself, the more comfortable I’ve felt on the golf course. The more I’ve just had fun and been me, the better I’ve played. You’ve just got to be comfortable with who you are, what you do. Don’t be ashamed to be different or anything. You know, that’s you.”
No wonder, also, that he has become friends with former PGA champion John Daly, another hefty, folksy personality from another time. Johnston approached him at a 2012 tournament in Germany, confessed he had read Daly’s autobiography and was a fan. The two now are occasional dinner mates and ate lunch together Tuesday.
“He’s a nice guy, he’s got a big heart, man,” Johnston said. “I just get on with him really well. We can have a nice time and a good laugh. He’s kind of similar to me.”
Johnston might need another top-10 finish this week to get Clarke’s attention. On Wednesday, Clarke called Johnston a “character” but noted how far down the European points standing he is.
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t pick another rookie,” Clarke said, “but it would be very difficult for me to do so.”
Johnston has never visited Minnesota and admitted he knows little about reaching a place that in September will hold a tournament he calls “massive, what you dream of as a kid.”
Except for one thing.
“Timberwolves, that’s it,” Johnston said. “Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves. The Bulls coach went there, right? [Tom] Thibodeau. I follow the basketball a bit, but that’s about all I know.”
Asked if he could name any famous Minnesotans, he said, “No, no, I’m sorry. Who is there?” When told such names as Prince, Bob Dylan, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Lehman, he said, “Keep going, I’m interested now. I’ll have to have a look at that now. I never knew that.”