In the end, the wait was worth it. Major tournaments should be won the way Henrik Stenson won the 145th Open Championship – with a performance so incredible; it will definitely become part of sporting folklore.
The Swede’s battle with the equally mesmeric Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon on Sunday will go down as one of the finest in the history of the Open Championship.
In fact, I will go out on a limb and put it ahead of the celebrated ‘Duel in the Sun’, that fantastic 1977 Open in Turnberry featuring eventual winner Tom Watson and the vanquished Jack Nicklaus.
It was like watching two heavyweight boxers going at each other from the starting bell to the last, trading blows with unwavering intensity, until one of them found extra inspiration in the last round to land the knockout blow.
The difference was that at Turnberry, Watson and Nicklaus played together all four days and could not be separated until the last hole. Watson birdied the last to edge ahead. He finished on 12-under par to Nicklaus’ -11, with Hubert Green third way behind at one-under par.
It was a similar storyline at Troon, although Stenson and Mickelson were not paired in the first two rounds. And the climax was virtually decided by the time the two stars reached the 17th green, but what happened in the preceding 16 holes was unforgettable.
Henrik Stenson's last 5 holes:— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) July 17, 2016
He saved his best for last. pic.twitter.com/7rTfYF7igK
Much like 1977, the next person in the field after Mickelson (-17) was a whopping 11 shots adrift (JB Holmes at six-under par), but what tilts the balance for me in favour of the final round in Troon is the number of birdies the two main protagonists made.
Watson, in his final round of five-under par 65, made seven birdies, while Nicklaus made four in his 66. On Sunday, Stenson made 10 birdies in his record-breaking eight-under par 63, while Mickelson made four birdies and an eagle in his 65.
Even looking at Stenson’s effort individually, it was the best finishing round ever to win an Open. His 63 was actually two shots better than Greg Norman’s previous best effort of 64 in 1993, which came on a par-70 Royal St George’s course. His total score for 72 holes was also an Open record low.
The stats are one way of looking at a performance; the other way is to see the quality of what transpired. After an unexpected blip on the opening hole, it was a trademark Stenson show. He was sensational off the tee, often using that three-wood of his to deadly effect as he bisected the fairways and put himself in great positions, and then capitalised with radar-guided iron approach shots.
When Stenson starts finding the greens in regulation with unerring accuracy, only one thing holds him back – his putter. And that was also on song on this occasion. Stenson really was the complete package and Mickelson was extremely unlucky to have encountered a rival in that kind of form.
There was a sense of déjà vu for those who follow the Open, Mickelson having beaten Stenson three years ago with a virtuoso performance that included four birdies in his last six holes at Muirfield.
Stenson spoke of getting his ‘revenge’ after Saturday’s third round, and he got it. In fact, he did one better than Mickelson, getting four birdies in the last five holes.
Even in the moment of his greatest triumph, the Swede reminded us once again why he is one of the most loved golfers in the world.
Stenson, who spent almost a decade living in Dubai, dedicated his win to his late friend Mike Gerbich. The popular former captain of Emirates Golf Club died on Wednesday after losing his battle against cancer. It was a touching gesture and one that just adds to Stenson’s legend.
He clearly is a great golfer, but more importantly, he is a better human being.
After electing not to play the last three Open Championships in order to spend more time with his family and cut down on his golfing commitment, the 49-year-old American showed he has lost none of his determination and skill as he shot a three-under-par-68 on Saturday, matching the lowest round of the day. He made five birdies, but more importantly, did not make a single bogey on the difficult back nine of Troon.
Stricker, who was inside the top-10 of the world rankings when he made the decision to curtail his schedule, has slipped to 167th place now. He is desperate to get back into the top-50, and the final round could prove vital.
Thank you Ross! Always fun to be in your company. Good luck the rest of the year https://t.co/CwTSZg9hpN— Steve Stricker (@stevestricker) July 16, 2016
Here, we round-up the best and worst of Day Three of The Open:
SHOT OF THE DAY: BILL HAAS
The American would have had a shudder go up his spine when his tee shot went straight into the bunker closest to the front pin position on the par-3, eight hole. But while others have struggled with the penal bunkers, Haas managed to explode out in spectacular fashion, holing it for a birdie.
FLOP OF THE DAY – ADAM SCOTT
A lot was expected from the Australian at Royal Troon, especially given his superb record in the Open Championship in recent years and his fantastic form this year. But on a special day – it was his 36th birthday on Saturday – the world No8 disappointed with a five-over par 76.
QUOTE OF THE DAY – GRAEME MCDOWELL
“It’s an intimidating golf shot. I think it’s a great little hole. I don’t like it much. I’m 4-over for it this week.” – The Northern Irishman gives his views on the iconic par-3 hole of Royal Troon, the Postage Stamp. On Saturday, in his round of one-over par 72, McDowell had a triplebogey six there.
Stenson, bidding to win his first major at the age of 40, had five birdies and two bogeys in his three-under-par round to move to 12-under for the championship.
That gave him a one-stroke advantage over Mickelson, who had been in front after the first two rounds but was overtaken after shooting a one-under 70 to sit at 11-under overall.
Mickelson, the 2013 champion, had three birdies but dropped shots at the 14th and 17th cost him the lead and he only saved par at the last after finding himself in a greenside bunker.
It appears poised for a two-way shoot-out between them for the Claret Jug in Sunday’s final round with Bill Haas of the United States leading the chasing pack at six-under.
Haas shot 69, while England’s Andrew Johnston had a 70 and is fourth at five under par.