JOHN MCHENRY: Hard to match Henrik Stenson’s raw ball-striking ability

All sports have their great days and after the recent debacle surrounding the Olympics, the world of golf needed something positive this week.

It got it, starting with Phil ‘the Thrill’ Mickelson’s brilliant record-equalling 63 on the opening day. It was the perfect response to get the media excited. Suddenly the focus was back on golf and not on the unwise comments of a great champion who wasn’t even competing in the Games.

Such was the ease with which the 2013 Open champion compiled his opening round, it suggested others in the field quickly needed to play catch-up. He forced their hand and in doing so he destroyed their hopes.

In situations like this, you need to have both the experience and the knowledge to stay calm, understanding that the tournament is more of a marathon that a sprint. It is won over 72 holes.

The great champions know this and while Mickelson’s opening 63 spreadeagled the field, others like Henrik Stenson gamely stuck to the task of reeling Mickelson back in. That he did so in just 54 holes gave you a clear insight into the mental strength of an in-form Stenson or ‘the Ice Man’ as he is favourably known on tour.

Stenson is a quiet ‘assassin’. He doesn’t do histrionics. Nor does he do many fist pumps either. Instead, he lets his clubs do the talking and when on form, there are few who can match his raw ball striking ability.

That said, Mickelson has more flair, more creativity and more experience, so the five-time champion would have started out as slight favourite yesterday. But with a major championship at stake, it seemed that the person who wanted it most and who hung in there longest on a tough course would prevail.

And so it proved. But rather than witness a tense and error-strewn last round, we were treated to one of the greatest ever closing round duels — and between two great champions.

To win, Mickelson had to use his more dominant short game to take advantage of the early holes — using them to capitalise and get ahead of a nervous Stenson before trying to defend his lead over the closing holes where the more authoritative striker Stenson held the advantage.

He had to use all of his experience to take Stenson out of his comfort zone and see how he reacted from there.

The great imponderable was Stenson. Mickelson was already a proven champion but how would Henrik react to the greatest opportunity of his career?

An opening bogey aside, it was fascinating to witness from the off how both players settled into their task — that sheer beauty of power, unrelenting rhythm, and sweet shot-making.

Given the magnitude of the occasion, it was an exhibition of extraordinary control and determination from both, with neither showing any signs of fallibility throughout the round.

It was a duel where both players were inspired by each other, a duel where one player seized the advantage only for the other to seize back control. In was a duel where no one, not even the captivated spectators, dared to blink.

In the end, the crucial moment came on the 16th hole. Sure there was Stenson’s long putt to give himself a two-shot advantage playing the 16th, but having done everything right we can only speculate as to what might have happened had Mickelson held his crucial eagle putt instead of coming up agonisingly short.

In the end, Stenson fully deserved his victory but on a day touched with genius, it would be nice to think that it may also represent some sort of a shift in the balance of power back to an older generation of gifted shot-makers.

After many failures over the final stretch of major championship where his temperament had been roundly questioned by the know-nothings, it is wonderful to see Stenson, Sweden’s first major champion, finally fulfilling his potential.

Golf has a new and very worthy champion.


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