TROON, Scotland – Perhaps the lasting image from the memorable 1977 Duel in the Sun at Turnberry came after the final putt dropped, with Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus walking off with arms over each other’s shoulders, perfectly capturing the combination of friendship and rivalry the two would long share.
A similar image happened Sunday afternoon at Royal Troon, after two incredible performances from Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson produced a record-setting distance between themselves and the rest of the field. The Swede had just won his – and his country’s – first men’s major with a final-round, 8-under 63. Mickelson, trying to juggle the emotions of pride and disappointment in his own bogey-free 65, put his arm around Stenson’s shoulder in a show of congratulations. Stenson returned the favor.
The moment only lasted a few seconds, but like the battle 39 years earlier, it put the exclamation point on a round in which two world-class golfers performed at maximum level, neither giving any quarter, each pushing the other to the limits in the heat of golf’s oldest major championship.
“It certainly crossed my mind a little bit out there today, that match when Jack and Tom went head-to-head there in ’77,” Mickelson said. “I certainly was thinking about that.”
Unfortunately for Mickelson …
“I know that I wanted to be more Tom in that case than Jack,” he added, in reference to Watson’s one-stroke win over Nicklaus. “I understand how it feels. It’s bittersweet, I guess.”
For golf fans, though, it was simply sweet, a rewarding end to this 145th Open Championship that saw a little bit of everything – terrific scoring conditions on Thursday with Mickelson a lip-out putt away from golf’s first 62 in a major; horrendous weather on Friday that essentially eliminated players caught in the bad draw; and then Stenson and Mickelson turning the tournament into a heavyweight battle over the weekend.
Stenson ultimately won at 20 under, tying the all-time lowest score (in relation to par) set by Jason Day at last year’s PGA Championship. Mickelson finished at 17 under – a score that would’ve been good enough to win all but three previous Opens. The third-place score was 6 under by J.B. Holmes. That 11-stroke separation is larger than the 10 strokes Watson-Nicklaus enjoyed in 1977.
Nick Faldo, who knows a thing or two about winning The Open, called the Stenson-Mickelson can-you-top-this show “links perfection. We’ve never seen anything like this. That golf was incredible.”
Ultimately, it was Stenson who delivered the biggest blows – 10, to be exact, the number of birdies he carded Sunday, including four in the final five holes. Although 63 has been shot 28 previous times in a major, Stenson’s is the first to be achieved in the final round of The Open. Johnny Miller at the 1973 U.S. Open has the only other 63 in a final round by the eventual winner.
“We managed to pull away from the rest of the field and we both played some great golf,” Stenson said. “It makes it even more special to beat a competitor like Phil. He’s been one of the best to play the game, certainly in the last 20 years.
“So to come out on top after such a fight with him over these four days – it makes it even more special.”
Stenson started the day a stroke ahead of Mickelson, but the leaderboard flipped quickly on the first hole, when Stenson three-putted from 60 feet while Mickelson birdied.
Any worries that Stenson’s early stumble might set a negative tone for him were quickly extinguished when he bounced back with three consecutive birdies. Mickelson didn’t back down – when he eagled the par-5 fourth after finding the green in two, the score once again was tied.
And that’s pretty much how it went the rest of the afternoon, Stenson and Mickelson trading haymakers like the latest Rocky sequel. Stenson kept firing darts and holing putts; no surprise that he led the field in greens in regulation this week. Meanwhile, Mickelson kept finding ways to match, unwilling to flinch and offer an opening.
They each went out in 4-under 32, and you had the feeling that was just the appetizer.
“I knew he wasn’t going to back down at any point,” Stenson said of Mickelson, “and in a way, that makes it easier for myself. I knew I had to keep on pushing, keep on giving myself birdie chances. He wasn’t going to give it to me.”
After running home a 15-foot birdie at the 10th, Stenson missed a short par putt at the 11th – his second three-putt of the day; imagine the 61 he could’ve shot without them – allowing Mickelson to climb within one of the lead.
“I was just trying to birdie every hole – and it seemed like he was,” Mickelson said. “I was just trying to keep pace.”
It wasn’t possible.
Stenson rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt on 14. Then a 50-footer on 15. Mickelson needed to make a big move. He found the green in two at the par-5 16th to give himself an eagle chance. He figured he could get one back there, maybe two if Stenson found trouble.
His eagle putt was struck perfectly and appeared to be tracking in. But a few inches out, it took a slight turn to the left, an agonizing miss that resembled Mickelson’s missed lip-out for 62 on Thursday. Meanwhile, Stenson chipped to 6 feet for his birdie.
- At the point, the duel had offered its final turn. Stenson clearly would not be denied. And perhaps the golf gods would not be denied too. Even so, he left no doubt on the final hole, holing a 30-foot birdie for 20 under and the three-shot win. Part-iceman, part-prankster, Stenson seemed to be fighting back tears on the green. At age 40, in his 42nd start in a major, he had finally delivered a performance of a lifetime.
A performance of anybody’s lifetime.
“It’s not something you want to run around and shout,” Stenson said, “but I felt like this was going to be my turn.”
From Mickelson’s perspective, it was also a performance of a lifetime. He couldn’t have played better. Starting in the final twosome, a 65 should’ve been good enough for his sixth major title.
How much solace he can take from that has yet to be determined.
“I played a bogey-free round of 65 on the final round of a major,” Mickelson said, “Usually that’s good enough to do it – and I got beat. I got beat by 10 birdies.”
Perhaps it was fitting that the sun broke through late in the day, giving this Duel in the Sun follow-up an appropriate ending. Watson-Nicklaus offered us one of the greatest days in golf history. Stenson-Mickelson offered us another.
“It was better than anyone could have imagined,” analyst Brandel Chamblee said on Golf Channel. “Maybe as good as the original.
“I really thought I made eagle on 16,” Mickelson said. “I thought I’d get one back there and be only one down with two difficult holes to go.
“I don’t know how that eagle putt missed. I really thought that was going to go in. But seems there have been a couple of putts like that this week. I’ve made a bunch, too, but it seems a couple of critical ones caught the lip.”
Said Stenson: “I considered myself lucky on 16 there.