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.
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