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Saturday 10 December 2016

Eamon Carr: The Claret Jug goes to Iowa after thrilling final day's play

Zach Johnson of the United States celebrates with wife Kim
Zach Johnson of the United States celebrates with wife Kim

It was a day that had promised so much.

A day that saw the return of the old Irish custom of the half-day, as golf lovers around the country took time off in the hope of seeing Greystones amateur Paul Dunne consolidate his position at the top of the leaderboard at St. Andrews. And lift the famous Claret Jug at the end of an eventful tournamant.

The pressure in the barometer pointed to squalls, rain and difficult conditions as it came time for the voice of Ivor Robson, the familiar first tee announcer at the old course, to boom out, "This is the final game of the 144th Open. On the tee for Ireland, Paul Dunne."

This was historic. An amateur player from Ireland going out last on the deferred fourth day of the Open. It felt as if the world was watching.

And so it was a different type of pressure that forced Dunne to make an early bogey on the first. He'd hoped to enjoy the day, play his normal competitive game and shoot a decent score. But the relentless media demands of the last couple of days and, perhaps, the realisation that he was carrying the hopes of a nation and amateur golfers the world over, all weighed heavily on the young Wicklowman's shoulders.

Up ahead, Padraig Harrington, with birdies on three of his first five holes, was hovering around the top of the leaderboard.

But as the skies darkened over the famous links course, in conditions described as "miserable" by a commentator, Irish hopes were blown hopelessly off course.

Dunne drove his tee shot from the second out to the putting green and was forced to jump up an down on a hillock to glimpse the flag on the green. As things went from bad to worse for Paul, Padraig was experiencing his own nightmare with a double bogey on the 6th.

This destructive drama came on the first nine holes, regarded as the best opportunities to make birdies. Because the last nine, the 13th and 17th in particular, are recognised as among the most unforgiving in golf.

Ask Adam Scott. He made five birdies on the front nine.

But saw that good work undone by three bogies and a double bogey on the return. He finished one under for the day, which saw him tie for tenth overall.

Elsewhere the tension that was being experienced by five players made this a compelling final day.

Despite a bogey on the 17th, Zack Johnson went to the clubhouse having posted -15 (-6). Marc Leishman made a bogey the 16th but the two pars that followed saw him tie.

nervous wait

They then had a nervous wait to see whether history-chasing Jordan Spieth or super-steady Jason Day might work some magic and overtake them. Despite displays of bravery and skill, neither player could catch up. Both men showed signs of personal agony as the chance of lifting the Claret Jug slipped away.

Playing with Paul Dunne, Louis Oosthuizen became one of just of a small group to birdie the final hole and land himself in the mix for a four-hole play-off.

Oosthuizen, from South Africa, had form, having enjoyed an Open victory five years ago. It's eight years since Johnson (USA) won the Masters. Only Australia's Leishman had never won a major.

And after the first play-off hole it was the Aussie who trailed at one over behind the American and the South African who were both one under.

Johnson notched a birdie on the second as the others parred. He went one ahead of Oosthuizen, three ahead of Leishman.

The dangerous Road Hole was the next test. It was gripping stuff. But each player made a bogey.

There was no guarantee the 18th hole would decide the destination of the famous trophy.

In the end, Johnson left himself a 15 foot putt to close out the deal with a birdie. He missed, tapped in for par and left Oosthuizen with an eight foot putt to force a sudden death play-off. The South African's shot seemed to almost skim the rim, leaving a relieved Johnson looking shattered. His one under after those four holes was one better than Oosthuizen's even par.

There were tears as the reality of his achievement dawned on the 39 year old. "I feel blessed to be the champion," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "Humbling and surreal are the words that come to mind."

So, the Claret Jug was going to Iowa and not Greystones or, even, Stackstown.

And the Silver Medal was presented to Jordan Niebrugge, who had begun the day three behind Paul Dunne. The 21-year old American tied 6 on -11.

But for the Irish there was a sense of pride that an amateur most of the public hadn't heard of before had made the running for so long.

Thanks to Paul Dunne, this year's Open was more engaging, and exhausting, than usual.

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