The New Duel
The 145th edition of the Open Championship was played at Royal Troon who hosted the world’s oldest Major for the ninth time.
Royal Troon offers players the opportunity to score on its opening and closing holes which buttress the teeth of the course, its middle holes. A classic links course which sits on the shore of the Firth of Clyde in South Ayrshire, Scotland, Royal Troon’s protection from low scores is the wind.
On Thursday’s opening round, Troon was without its defense of the elements and was at the mercy of the players, who showed none.
The onslaught was led by Phil Mickelson who fashioned a flawless 8-under par, 63 that gave him a 3 shot advantage over Martin Kaymer, Patrick Reed and a host of other players at 4-under par. 51 players broke par and Mickelson stood on the precipice of history with a 20-foot putt on his last hole to become the first player in the annals of Major Championships to shoot a 62. 6 inches from the hole his putt was sure to go in until it inexplicably veered right and agonizingly missed.
Folklore would tell you that ghosts live in this ancient place and that they spirited the putt away to deny Lefty the first mystical 62.
Mickelson would once again get the best of the weather as he played in Friday’s morning wave shooting a 2-under par 69 for a two day total of 10-under. The best round from Day 2 was a 6-under, 65, from Sweden’s Henrik Stenson leaving him one shot behind Mickelson at 9-under.
As the afternoon wore on wind and rain swept across the course and pars became precious commodities. The 36-hole cut went from being a two day total of par or 1-over to 4-over as one water-logged player after another sloshed their way through the gorse and fescue.
To further demonstrate the luck of the draw, the first 14 players on the leaderboard after the conclusion of the second round had all played in the afternoon on Thursday and the morning of Friday.
Paired together in the final group on Saturday, Stenson and Mickelson would separate themselves from the field with an exhibit for the ages.
Stenson birdied 3 of his opening 5 holes to become the outright leader at 12-under with Mickelson trailing by one after a birdie of his own on the 5th hole.
Mickelson played the middle holes like Houdini; making one miraculous escape after another while Stenson would make two bogies to relinquish his lead back to the American. Stenson’s ball striking on this day was at his sublime best while Mickelson’s short game was other-worldly.
Mickelson offset two back-9 birdies with two bogies to end the day with a 1-under par, 70 and a 3-day total of 11-under.
Stenson made birdie-2’s on both back-9 par 3’s and shot a 3-under, 68 that was tied for the lowest score of the day, giving him a one shot advantage over Mickelson heading into Sunday’s final round.
American Bill Haas was in third place, 5 shots behind Mickelson at 6-under par.
On a day when only 12 players in the field bettered par, the brilliance of Mickelson and Stenson’s play was even more amplified.
At 40, Stenson has long established himself as one of the best players in the world, but he is missing one vital component to enter the elite echelon; a Major. Revered as one of the best if not the best; ball strikers on Tour, Stenson’s putting has been his nemesis.
46-year old Mickelson is chasing history and counts 5 Majors among 41 career PGA Tour victories (9th most of all-time).
In 1977 at nearby Turnberry, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson had separated themselves similarly from the rest of the field and played their epic, “Duel In the Sun”. Watson shot a pair of 65’s on the weekend to best Nicklaus who shot 65 and 66, by one. The 3rd place finisher that year, Hubert Green, finished 10 shots behind Nicklaus.
This week would be “The Duel at Troon”. The New Duel.
Mickelson and Stenson shot matching 4-under par, 32’s on the front 9 on Sunday.
Stenson relinquished his outright lead with a 3-putt bogie on the 11th where they stayed until Stenson birdied the par-3 14th hole. Ensuing birdies on the 15th, 16th and 18th holes, by converting long putts that before now had not gone in, put the exclamation mark on the Swede’s masterpiece final round and a 3 stoke margin over Mickelson. Stenson’s 63 equaled Johnny Miller’s finishing 63 at Oakmont in the 1974 U.S. Open as the two lowest closing rounds in Major Championship history.
Stenson became the first male Swedish player to win a Major Championship (Annika Sorenstam won 10 Women’s Majors) and set both the aggregate and scoring record in the Open Championship.
Although Mickelson was the runner-up (the 11th time in his career that he has finished 2nd in a Major), there was no loser on this stage today. Until the final twosome completed their round, Rory McIlroy had authored the day’s best score, a 4-under, 67. Mickelson bested that by two, and Stenson bettered that by a further two. American JB Holmes finished in 3rd place at 6-under par, 11 shots behind Mickelson, setting another Major record with the biggest gap between 2nd and 3rd place.
The sheer artistry and superlative mastery of this week will surely be the standard by which all others are measured.