By John Huggan
TROON, Scotland -- Does it or can it ever get any better than this?
Just as the epic duel between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 -- the “Duel in the Sun” -- quickly attained legendary status, so the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon is surely destined for similar acclaim. This was the ultimate two-horse race, only with Secretariat against a viable challenger. A head-to-head contest without interruption. A private match played out in front of thousands on-site and millions around the globe. Ali versus Frazier; Borg versus McEnroe; Chamberlain versus Russell - squared.
And yes, just as Tom and Jack had done, Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson walked off the 18th green with arms around the other’s shoulders. Golf and sport has never had a better advertisement.
Think about this for a moment. After starting the final round one-stroke off the lead, Mickelson made four birdies and an eagle and didn’t drop a shot en route to shooting 65. Not one. Yet still he lost. By three. To a man who began with a bogey, made one more at the hardest hole on the course, but accumulated an astonishing ten birdies on one of the toughest links in all the world.
Stenson even found time to miss three shortish putts in shooting 63 and 264, the lowest 18-hole score (alongside 28 others) and lowest 72-hole score (in relation to par) in the history of major championship golf. Perhaps only Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000 - when he won the US Open by 15 shots - can claim to have played better. Ever.
Oh, and did we mention that the two main protagonists finished on 20-under and 17-under par? Or that the man in third place, J.B. Holmes, was a distant (and eminently respectable) six-under par? To paraphrase the late Bobby Jones, Stenson and Mickelson were clearly playing a game with which the rest of the field was not familiar.
There will be some who will point to the fact that the two men atop the leader board were fortunate enough to play “late-early” on the opening two days when “early-late” condemned half the field to, as the less-lucky world number four Rory McIlroy put it, “trying to finish as high as I could.” Which is undeniable. But that argument soon breaks down. Not one of the other 76 men in the Stenson/Mickelson wave came close to challenging for the title.
No, this was golf as it is supposed to be played. On a course presented in a fashion that allowed low scores to be shot by those playing and putting well enough, but only by those playing and putting well enough. At Royal Troon there was no faking.
For Stenson, at the age of 40, this is the culmination of a career that had previously produced seven top-four finishes in major championships, but no victories. He is the first male Swede to triumph at the highest level, albeit he won the Players Championship as far back as 2009. He has also, very quietly, been just about the best player in the world tee-to-green for some time, a fact acknowledged by the sporting runner-up.
“Henrik is a great champion,” said Mickelson. “I’ve always thought that he is one of the best ball-strikers in the game. And that the major championships are perfectly suited for him. I knew that he would ultimately come through and win. I’m happy that he did. But I’m disappointed that it was at my expense.”
Mickelson’s assertion is spot on. First in greens-in-regulation, Stenson was fifth in fairways hit, eleventh in driving distance, made six more birdies than anyone else in the field and, most significantly, was T-4 in the putting stats. His was an almost totally dominant performance.
“I’ve been high on the greens-in-regulation category for a few years now,” confirms Stenson. “That has an impact on putting. I’m never going to be high in the putts-per-round category. But I have been putting in a lot of effort on the greens and it is paying off. When I am playing well I always hit at least a couple of approaches really close. But if I hit, say, 15 greens I’m not inside 15-feet every time.”
Maybe not. But he came close in a final round Stenson will surely never match for sheer all-round brilliance, birdie putt after birdie putt disappearing below ground. All of which did not surprise him one little bit. This, believe it or not, was something he saw coming.
“It’s not something you want to run around and shout,” he said. “But I felt like this week was going to be my turn. That was the extra self-belief that made me go all the way this week.”
Also pushing him on was the memory of a close friend from the Stenson family’s time living in Dubai. Mike Gerbich, a past captain of the Emirates Golf Club, home of the Dubai Desert Classic, passed away on the eve of the championship. In tribute, Stenson wore a black ribbon on his hat all four days.
As for Mickelson, the gallant runner-up displayed a mixture of understandable disappointment, typical sportsmanship and, it must be said, an air of shock in his post-round interviews.
“This is probably the best I’ve played and not won,” he said. “That’s why it is so disappointing. I don’t have a point where I can look back and say, ‘I should have done this or I should have done that.’ I played a bogey-free round in the final round of a major. And I got beat by ten birdies.
“I’m not sure how I’m going to feel about this loss. I’m proud of the way I played. I played what I feel was well enough to win this championship by a number of strokes. I put in my best performance today. I played close to flawless golf. At the start I was hopeful I could shoot something in the mid-60s. I actually thought anything in the 60s was going to be a good round today.”
It was, Phil. Which is what made this day, these rounds and this championship so very very special.