No one should underestimate the enormity of the occasion, given that last Sunday’s final round of the Open Championship was in fact Henrik Stenson’s (40) most realistic opportunity to win his first major championship and, perhaps, Phil Mickelson’s (46) last.
Opportunities to win major championships, even for players of the calibre of Stenson and Mickelson do not come around very often, so winning would have been all that mattered that day for two great players running out of time.
That both had already made the last round an almost “exclusive” two-horse race without interruption, speaks volumes for the sheer quality of their performances over the first 54 holes and given that this is a Ryder Cup year, with one of the two main protagonists coming from Europe and the other from America, it only added further spice and bragging rights to the already special occasion.
Royal Troon is a very difficult golf course. There is no room for faking there, so given that Sunday’s performance produced arguably the greatest head-to-head duel in the history of the game, it speaks volumes for the mind and attitude of these two great warriors.
Starting out the day, Mickelson would have probably known that he would have needed to produce a sub par round to win against an in-form Stenson, but never would he have thought that a final round 65 would not have been good enough. In fact as flawless as it was, it would have been little consolation for him to know that his 17-under-par finish would in fact have been good enough to win 141 of the 145 Open Championships ever played.
In the cold heat of battle, you simply have to admire the way that Mickelson left nothing behind - openly admitting that he played about as well as he could. He had given everything but he was simply outgunned by a player who truly believed that his time had come – something which Stenson’s remarkable statistics verify.
During the entire week, Stenson was fifth in fairways and first in greens hit in regulation.
He was tied fourth in putting, 11th in driving distance and he also made six more birdies than anyone else in the field in what was truly an astonishingly dominant performance.
And yet it begs the question, how were Mickelson and even more so Stenson able to lift themselves and their games onto a level that we so rarely see in tournament golf?
What we do know is that we have regularly seen this type of performance before in the Ryder Cup, so was it the rivalry or perhaps the fact that both players only had to exclusively concentrate on each other, that made their performance possible?
For example, who can forget the 2012 Ryder Cup where the Americans at one time held a dominant 10-5 lead and were 2 up with six holes to play in the final Saturday before Ian Poulter dramatically shifted the momentum of the match by birdying all five of the final holes? In doing so, it acted as the catalyst for Europe to go on to stage the largest comeback in the history of the Ryder Cup.
In my opinion, last Sunday’s duel created a special set of circumstances we shouldn’t ignore.
While everyone knows all about the opportunity, both competitors were also of a similar standard, both have also had the familiarity of facing off against each other time and again and with so much rivalry already in place, it would have increased their motivation, their effort, and ultimately their performance levels.
Why then, were we so surprised to witness such a performance on Sunday with so much at stake?
After all, how often have we seen great rivals like Federer and Nadal or Djokovic or Senna and Prost or Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira thrilling fans with sensational displays rarely before witnessed, when it mattered most?
Last weekend, we were privileged to watch two artists caught up “in the moment” moving around the course, scanning the landscape, always looking for the best lines of approach and attack.
Mentally fresh, they had no fear, they stayed in a zone that allowed them to just play their own game.
While both clearly understood that there could only be one winner, what was most satisfying to watch, was the respect and mutual admiration that both players had for each other.
For Mickelson, the loss would understandably have been a crushing blow but the sportsmanship that both demonstrated when walking off the 18th green with arms around the other’s shoulders, it couldn’t have been a better advertisement for a game more recently tarnished by the non-participation controversy of the Olympics.
What’s nice is that it is the jaw-dropping play of two old–timers, has now attained a legendary status in the game of golf.
Pausing for thought - can it ever get any better than this? Sure it can because records are there to be broken but last weekend’s effort by both Mickelson and Stenson has drawn a line in the sand.
It has proven for once and for all that self belief as well as a healthy and mutual competitive respect for your adversary may just be the best formula for ultimate success.
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