Andrew Johnston taps into Beef mania to be England’s big hope at the Open

Golf - British Open

At the end of 2013 Andrew Johnston, the player they call “Beef”, was worried that he did not have enough money to buy Christmas presents.

But he goes into the final round of the Open on Sunday in fourth place, knowing that if he stays there he will pick up £347,000 to go with the €330,000 (£267,000) he took home for winning the Open de España at Valderrama in May, his first European Tour title.

Johnston, 27 and from Barnet, interacts with spectators like no other player and the crowd got right behind the best home hope as he finished his third round five under par, seven shots behind the leader Henrik Stenson.

“I’ve been called ‘Beef’ since I was 12. A friend of mine said I looked like a beefhead – and it got shortened,” he explained. It also might have something to do with his Falstaffian figure.

He was asked his weight at the end of his round on Saturday night. “I have no idea. You want to pick me up. I don’t know, man. About 16 stone I reckon.”

It starts on the very first tee. Johnston has just made his first third-round drive, a whopper that almost reaches the green 367 yards away. But before the ball lands the shouts go up. “C’mon Beef”, “Go Beef!” He turns, grins hugely and raises a thumb to his many supporters.

And so it goes on. On the way down the 4th fairway the cheers become louder. “C’mon Beef”‚ “Do it Beef”. And each time there is a vast grin and a raised thumb. Some people wave hamburgers at him. Someone repeatedly calls out “Caeser salad” because he said on TV that he was going to eat one.

He is playing with someone called Sergio García, who looks mildly bewildered. It feels like a bounce game, instead of the most important tournament in the world of golf. He has a beard that might have been hewn from the rough. He had gone into the third day four under par after shooting a pair of 69s. And on Saturday, with three birdies and a couple of bogeys, he pulled out another shot.

His biggest fan is his five-year-old niece, Summer. “I can hear her shouting out ‘Uncle Beef’ now nearly every hole, and ‘Beef to the rescue’. She cracks me up,” he says.

After winning the Open de España he said: “I can’t wait to get back to North Mid and get hammered.” The North Mid is the North Middlesex Golf Club, which he joined at the age of nine. He started playing five years before then, when his father took him to a field to hit balls. Once, after a boys’ home international tournament in Inverness, he had a late night and was locked out of the team’s B&B accommodation. When he tried to find a place to sleep he set off the alarm in the local clubhouse, which attracted the attention of the police.

“That was a fun night,” Johnston recalls. “I will never forget the manager’s face when he looked out the window and saw me there with two policemen.”

On the way to the final hole at Royal Troon on Saturday we’re getting close to Beef fever. He reaches over the barrier to touch dozens of hands. Any other golfer would be concentrating on the job in hand. Afterwards García said he was one of the nicest people with whom he had played. But can he win it?

Johnston said: “We’ll see, man. We’ll see. Just going to go out and play and see what happens. What is the point of playing if you don’t believe or trust yourself or back yourself?”

And when asked about the following he gets, he said: “Oh, it’s been amazing, man. I absolutely love it. You know, that’s what it’s about. If people really enjoy themselves, that’s what it’s about. You want them to go home with good memories and go, oh, my God. I’ve had such a great day.

“I’m just a normal guy who happens to play golf. I’ll talk and chat to anyone.” He played his best shot when he chipped in for a birdie on the 13th. “I walked over and I could see my mum crying, which was even funnier. And that got me going a bit. I was like, oh my God, don’t look at my mum.”

Powered by article was written by Paul Weaver at Royal Troon, for The Observer on Saturday 16th July 2016 20.33 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010