The Open Golf 2016: Henrik Stenson outduels Phil Mickelson


July 18, 2016

The Open Golf 2016: Sweden’s Henrik Stenson outduels Phil Mickelson

by Michael Bamberger

http://www.golf.com/tour-and-news/british-open-2016-henrik-stenson-outduels-phil-mickelson-capture-claret-jug

TROON, Scotland–In one of the greatest displays of golf this championship has ever seen, Henrik Stenson, at age 40, became the first Swede to win the British Open, or claim any major title, on Sunday at the stern Royal Troon Golf Club. The final round was a stunning display of mano-a-mano golf, as Stenson and his playing partner, Phil Mickelson, 46, going off in the last twosome of the day, completely distanced themselves from the rest of the field and matched each other almost shot for shot in what amounted to golf theater as its most thrilling.

Stenson won with a final-round, record-tying 63, playing the final five holes in four under par. He finished with 10 birdies, and it marked the 29th time that 63 had been shot in a major championship. (Johnny Miller, at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, is the only other champion to do it in a final round.) All Mickelson did was post a bogey-free, six-under 65. For 14 holes, the two were never more than a shot apart, one player repeatedly matching the other with a stiff approach shot or a birdie hole-out.

At the start of the round, played under unexpectedly welcoming conditions after two cold and blustery days, Stenson enjoyed a one-shot lead, as he stood 12 under par, a shot ahead of Mickelson. Both men had played spectacular golf for three days, but there was nothing to suggest the Sunday fireworks they both produced. Stenson, a tall and lean Swede who will surely be on the European Ryder Cup team in late September, has a long history of mediocre play on Sundays. Mickelson, who had not won an event since his surprising victory at the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, has been experimenting with putters and putter grips as the part of his game that was once his greatest asset had become a liability.

But then came Sunday, a final act to a national title that made you almost forget about the debacle of Oakmont, where a confusing rules situation and unsteady play by the 54-hole leader, Shane Lowry, made the day less than glorious. When Stenson bogeyed the short and straight par-4 1st and Mickelson made an almost gimme birdie, the 54-hole scoreboard totals were suddenly meaningless. Mickelson led by a shot as the two went to the 2nd tee.

A shot is nothing in links golf, where bad luck in any bunker can mean a 7 on your card, where balls get can lost in gorse and in the hay. But a one-shot lead at that moment seemed significant. Mickelson had all the advantage. He has won five majors. He has played in last groups of big events many, many times. He knows how to rise to the occasion. With the winds calm, he was in position to plot his way around the course with precision. With the opening bogey for Stenson, you had the feeling it would be dejavu all over again. Would he go for 80 on the par-71 course where Americans had won the last six Opens held on the seaside course?

But then came the next nearly four hours, and a reminder of why we watch and love sports in the first place. There were no rules issues. (The pace in the final group was slow, but the R&A rules officials let it slide. The final group on the final day, playing for the oldest championship in golf, is never anything like a horse race. There are a lot of moving parts.) This was simply a fantastic display of driving, iron play, putting and thinking that showed the best of the best today are nearly as good as Tiger Woods. Between the two of them, hitting tee shots nearly the same length, smiling at each other by way of wordless compliment, there was barely a single missed shot.

Stenson birdied the 2nd, 3rd and 4th holes. He gave the fifth a break—he made a routine par there—and made another birdie on 6. Bam, pop, boom. A lesser opponent might have folded up the shop by that point.

Mickelson did anything but. When he missed maybe a four-foot birdie putt on 3, he did something you seldom see in a professional tournament. He took a practice putting stroke from the same spot—flagstick in, no ball—apparently trying to work out a kink. On the next hole, the par-5 4th, Mickelson holed a roughly 10-foot putt for an eagle. He matched Stenson’s birdie on 6.

Photo: Getty ImagesPhil Mickelson has collected more runner-up finishes in major than any other golfer besides Jack Nicklaus.
And so they came to the most famous hole at Troon, No. 8, a tiny par-3, playing about 120 yards. A sawed-off nine-iron or wedge for these guys, who by this point both stood at 15 under par. Mickelson had the honor. He was dressed in the manner of his forebears, in charcoal-gray trousers and a black jumper. His face was reddish and wind-burned. His tee shot was a thing of beauty, leaving him a 15-footer. Stenson hit his to about 20 feet. The Swede made. The lefthander just missed. The advantage went Stenson, who went out in 32 despite the bogey on the 1st. Mickelson did too. Two 32s. Proof, among other things, that there is nothing wrong with letting the players play and if the scoring conditions lend themselves to scoring, and if the players can handle themselves, low scores will follow.

They both birdied the 10th. When Stenson three-putted the 11th and Mickelson got up and down for par, the two were tied again.

The stakes for Mickelson were enormous. For one thing, he would love to play on this year’s Ryder Cup team; he has been on the past 10. Also, he is trying to distance himself from an SEC investigation in which he was charged with no crime but was discovered to have had large gambling debts to professional gambler Billy Walters, who was charged with insider trading. Not that he was likely thinking about any of that, but golf is a decidedly mental game.

But golf offers no defense. It is the game’s greatest strength and why so many ordinary sports fans cannot relate to it all. Stenson, whatever Sunday problems he has had in the past, went on another three-hole tear, to match his one on the front. Birdie on 14, on 15, on 16. All Mickelson could do was watch and, because he is Phil, smile, while making a two pars and a birdie on those same holes. Stenson, who once stripped to his undershorts to play a shot from a murky pond at Doral, who has a quirky and quick sense of humor, had a two-shot lead. A two-shot lead with two to play has proven, often, to be nothing. Not on this Sunday, which was a study in steadiness. Stenson’s birdie putt at the 17th singed the lip, and he curled in a 20-footer at the home hole. Again, Mickelson could only smile.

But golf offers no defense. It is the game’s greatest strength and why so many ordinary sports fans cannot relate to it all. Stenson, whatever Sunday problems he has had in the past, went on another three-hole tear, to match his one on the front. Birdie on 14, on 15, on 16. All Mickelson could do was watch and, because he is Phil, smile, while making a two pars and a birdie on those same holes. Stenson, who once stripped to his undershorts to play a shot from a murky pond at Doral, who has a quirky and quick sense of humor, had a two-shot lead. A two-shot lead with two to play has proven, often, to be nothing. Not on this Sunday, which was a study in steadiness. Stenson’s birdie putt at the 17th singed the lip, and he curled in a 20-footer at the home hole. Again, Mickelson could only smile.

How good was their golf? The third-place finisher, J.B. Holmes, was at six under. The PGA Championship is next, in two weeks, followed by the Olympics and then the Ryder Cup. You’ll be seeing a lot of Henrik Stenson. Not matter what he does, he’s the champion golfer of the year.

 

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