‘Where’s the Beef?’ Just Listen…

With his thick beard wide body, England's Andrew Johnston has seen his popularity grow among the fans this week at the U.S. Open. (USGA/Darren Carroll)
With his thick beard wide body, England's Andrew Johnston has seen his popularity grow among the fans this week at the U.S. Open. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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OAKMONT, Pa. – The sudden popularity of Andrew Johnston isn’t difficult to understand. The portly Englishman is one of those gifted “everyman” characters who possesses supreme talents in an athletic endeavor while exhibiting none of the accompanying physical traits.

Johnston is a wide-body truck in a field of Lamborghinis, England’s version of John Daly – able to connect with fans through simple down-home charm and a similar couch-potato build. He sports a beard that would please Old Tom Morris or a Kentucky Hilltopper. And his nickname is “Beef.” Descriptive. Juicy. Easy to shout.

And American golf fans were shouting it often Saturday morning as Beef sizzled his way around Oakmont Country Club, feeling the love, feeling his shots and feeling in the hunt in the 116th U.S. Open after a second-round 1-under-par 69 enabled him to easily make the cut at 4-over 144 in his first start in this championship.

Where’s the Beef? Follow the chants.

“The reception here from the crowds, it’s been so much fun. It’s just been mad,” said Johnston, 27, who hails from North London and earned his spot via the sectional qualifier at Walton Heath Golf Club outside of London. “I thought I might get a little bit of attention, but everyone is just shouting, ‘Beeeeeeef!’ It’s crazy. I just wave back to everyone and have fun with it. I’m loving it.”

That last line sounds like a calculated addendum – are you listening, McDonald’s? – but the young man doesn’t seem have a pretentious bone in his body. His mannerisms and his pattern of speech have a simple, Old World authenticity, but his game is new age and newly regenerated after he figured out what he needed to do to better tap into his skills.

Introduced to golf at age 4 by his father, a single-digit handicapper, Johnston was one of England’s best junior golfers before turning professional at age 20. But it took him a few years to find himself, and he finally reached the PGA European Tour after two victories on the Challenge Tour in 2014.

His breakthrough came earlier this year when he won the Open de Espana, and he recently added a tie for seventh at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, where a year earlier he made a hole-in-one in the first round and became an internet sensation. Not for the shot, mind you, a slam-dunk from 182 yards on the par-3 10th hole, but for his celebratory chest bump with a fan during which Beef barely got air under his feet.

The irony in that is his avid interest in basketball.

“I’m having fun and I’m just being me, and the personality just comes out a bit more and everyone just seems to like it,” he said. “So it’s all good. I gained confidence being myself, and I think that’s helped me on the course as well.”

Changing his caddie, to Gordon Faulkner, has helped. So has employing swing coach Alan Thompson and putting coach Paul Ashwell, both of whom tried to help him when he attended the English Golf Union. It didn’t take the first time.

“It’s funny because I remember being in the EGU setup as a junior, and I was very much like, ‘Don’t tell me what to do. I’ll do it my way. Leave me alone. I’m going to play how I want to play.’ And I was talking with Alan about how mad it is that I am working with both of them now. I’ve known them for years.

“I’ve matured, obviously,” he added. “It was me. You know, it’s the old, ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’”

As for how he earned the nickname “Beef,” Johnston rolls his eyes when he tells the story, and it’s fascinating to learn that it has nothing to do with his stocky 5-foot-10, 220-pound frame.

“When I was a kid, about 11 or 12,” he explained, “when I grew my hair out it would go curly, and one of my mates said, ‘Look at you with your big head. You’re a meathead.’ And then he called me ‘Beefhead’. And then he told everyone. And then everyone shortened it to Beef and it just kind of stuck.”

Fortunately, so have the lessons from his new team. Ranked 105th in the world, Johnston is enjoying a breakout season, and trailing leader Dustin Johnson by eight strokes entering the third round of the 116th U.S. Open presents another opportunity to, um, beef up his resume.

“Last year we made a few changes, and they seemed to have a good effect on me,” he said. “I have a new caddie as well and he’s brilliant. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled out the wrong club and he just tells me, ‘Put that back in the bag.’ I’ve learned so much off all of them. They simplified things and made me a bit more natural. And then you just start hitting shots and you’re feeling more shots – and I’m a feel player, so it really has been good for me. And then you get the win and you use it as confidence, and it’s all a really big snowball effect.”

Well, it’s more like a meatball effect, in this case. But roll on.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.