What is about the Ayrshire air? First the “Duel in the Sun” and now this. It wasn’t fought out in the sun, sadly. It was just as memorable, though, as that titanic tussle between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus just down the coast at Turnberry in 1977.
For two full two days, Swede Henrik Stenson and American Phil Mickelson slugged it out like two heavyweight boxers. The knock-out punches were 20-foot and 50-foot birdie putts back-to-back at the 14th and 15th from the Swede. After starting the day with a bogey, the 40-year-old bounced back with ten birdies. With a closing 63, he set all sorts of records.
It was the first time anyone had signed off with that score to become Champion Golfer of the Year. His winning 20-under-par 264 total is the lowest in any of the four majors. It beat the previous best here, set by Justin Leonard in 1997, by eight shots. It was also a new best in this event in relation to par, beating Tiger Woods’ tally at St Andrews in 2000. Oh, and Stenson is also the first Scandinavian to win a men’s major. Talk about a day to remember.
It was a reversal of how the same two players had finished up in this event at Muirfield three years ago. On another day, a flawless closing 65 would have been good enough for Mickelson to claim his second Claret Jug and sixth major title. That he lost out in the end by three shots in the 145th Open Championship was testament to the phenomenal golf produced by his playing partner over 72 holes but, in particular, 36 of those.
The white horses racing towards the coastline in the Firth of Clyde as the morning starters headed out indicated another tough test was in store. The hardy kite surfers, though, seemed to be having great fun in the strong westerly wind as they moved like bullets in the water close to the first tee.
By the time the two title contenders arrived there, the conditions had definitely eased slightly. For the first time since Thursday, the sun also popped its head out, though not for long. “The sun will come up on Monday,” said Stenson in his press conference on Saturday night before adding, after a brief pause, to a chorus of laughter: “Maybe not in Scotland, but in other parts of the world.”
He headed into the last-day battle having received a good-luck message from compatriot Jesper Parnevik, who had two chances to claim the Claret Jug on the Ayrshire coast. He finished a shot behind Nick Price in 1994 at Turnberry before taking a two-shot lead into the final round at Troon three years later only to finish three behind Justin Leonard after a closing 73. “Finish off what I never did,” said Parnevik in a tweet to his compatriot. “Sweden has waited long enough.”
Before teeing off, Mickelson walked over to the cabinet containing the prize up for grabs, kissed his fingers and touched the glass. It could have been a case of trying to play psychological warfare with his opponent. The majestic approach he then hit to a foot at the first, though, was a more significant statement of intent.
If Stenson looked a tad tense as he opened with a three-putt bogey – it was Mickelson who had been on the wrong end of a brace of two-shot swings the previous day – he was soon into his majestic stride. In went a 15-foot birdie putt at the second. In went a 12-foot double-breaker at the third to regain the lead.
This was like Muhammad Ali going toe-to-toe with Joe Frazier or Marvin Hagler trading blows with Sugar Ray Leonard. Mickelson came off the ropes with an eagle at the 555-yard fourth courtesy of 4-iron from 237 yards to around ten feet. Stenson’s birdie there meant they were tied on 14-under.
Matching birdie-4s went down on the cards at the sixth, another scoreable par-5. Stenson made amends for squandering a birdie chance at the seventh by making 2 from 15 feet at the Postage Stamp. Mickelson missed from half that distance to slip behind as both turned in 32.
Surely they couldn’t keep firing fireworks on Troon’s tough back nine? Oh, yes. In following his playing partner in from a similar distance – ten feet or so – for a birdie at the 451-yard tenth, Mickelson stopped himself potentially slipping two behind. He drew level, in fact, at the next as Stenson’s four-foot par putt spun out of the hole.
Mickelson had required some, well, “Mickelson magic” to escape with a par at the 12th – one of the most under-rated holes on this fantastic course – on Saturday. He repeated that feat at the aptly-named “Fox”, this time rolling in a 25-footer after missing the fairway off the tee then finding a worse spot with his next blow.
It could easily have been a punch that led to Stenson eventually suffering a knockout. This was a day, though, that the Swede just wasn’t going to either be intimidated or overpowered. By the time they reached the 16th tee, in fact, it was Mickelson who was back on the ropes.
The 178-yard par-3 14th had been good to Stenson on Saturday, benefitting from a two-shot swing. Courtesy of a 20-footer, he only gained one on this occasion but it was valuable, nonetheless. Even sweeter was the near 50-foot birdie putt he drained at the next. His huge fist pump as that toppled in the front edge illustrated how important it was. For the first time since Mickelson had held that advantage after the 13th hole on Saturday the pair were separated by two shots.
That it stayed that way after the par-16th was only half the story. Stenson pulled his approach and needed Mickelson’s silky-short game touch to recover to four feet. From 30 feet, Mickelson’s eagle attempt shaved the right edge of the hole. Did those golfing gods who denied him the first 62 in a major in Thursday’s opening round conspire against him again?
This had become a match-play contest since they had teed off in the third round. Two up with two to play, Stenson piled pressure on his opponent by finding the green at the 220-yard 17th with another arrow-straight blow. Mickelson missed the green and, finally, looked a beaten man as he chipped to 14 feet. In that went, though, for par. With Stenson unable to convert an eight-footer, it wasn’t over just yet.
The Swede’s 3-wood from the tee at the last just stopped short of the fairway bunker where Greg Norman came to grief as he lost out to Mark Calcavecchia in a play-off here in 1989. Phew. It left him with a straightforward second shot in the green. Straightforward apart from having to try and close out your first major. Stenson was up to the task, safely finding the heart of the green. The fans in the 18th hole arena, which had been sparse until then, rose to acclaim the worthy winner – the first non-American to triumph at Troon since South African Bobby Locke in 1950. Fittingly, it was a victory sealed in style. His 25-foot birdie putt toppled in the back door for his tenth birdie of the round. Phenomenal. How fitting that the pair walked off the 18th with their arms around each other’s shoulders, as, of course, Watson and Nicklaus did in 1977.
Incidentally, the “other” tournament was won by JB Holmes, pictured. He finished third – a whopping 14 shots behind Stenson in what was another great advert for the Scottish Open. Stenson joined Darren Clarke (2011), Ernie Els (2012) and Mickelson (2013) in becoming Open champion the week after playing in that event. In addition, five of this year’s top seven – Stenson, Mickelson, Holmes, Steve Stricker and Tyrrell Hatton – were all in this year’s field at Castle Stuart.