If you felt a change of wind sweeping across Royal Troon Sunday, it came not from Mother Nature but from Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A.
Until the afternoon became engulfed in pure athletic brilliance by Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson, the 145th Open Championship was threatening to be held up as one of the most forgettable in recent time.
Instead, Slumbers — in his first year as top authority since taking over for Peter Dawson — breathed a massive sigh of relief.
He had a classic dropped into his lap.
One lucky man? Perhaps, but here’s a nod toward the philosophy that sometimes you hit it well and get a bad bounce, other times you hit it not so pure and catch a good break.
In Slumbers’ case, the way things unfolded with the world’s top four players — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy — was an unfortunate set of circumstances that was out of his control, a “perfect storm” as we say in the States. So cheers to players ranked sixth (Stenson) and 19th (Mickelson) for shifting the focus back to golf, and exquisite golf, at that.
Make that breathtaking golf, Mickelson shooting a bogey-free 65 and losing because Stenson posted 63 to establish a record 264 in the major championships.
Firing at flagsticks and pouring in birdies while everyone else around them struggled in the gorse and the bunkers, oh, and with early wind and the rain, Stenson and Mickelson revived memories of 1977 when Hubert Green, the third-place finisher, famously said: “I won this golf tournament. I don’t know what game those other two guys were playing.”
Tom Watson shot 65-65 going head-to-head with Jack Nicklaus’ 65-66 that year, but 39 summers later, feel free to give the nod to Stenson-Mickelson for what Nick Faldo called “links perfection.”
Ah, but before the two veterans (Stenson 40, Mickelson 46) brought a civility to the proceedings, the youngsters with so much fury, so much star power, so much control over the top of the Official World Golf Ranking . . . well, they nearly derailed things.
Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy — better known as numbers 1-4 in the OWGR — not only didn’t carry their weight, they managed to disrupt the oldest championship at different points.
Most disappointing to Slumbers, the R&A, and just about everyone else who has pushed to return golf to the Olympics, all four had to answer questions during the week about their withdrawals.
Day, Johnson and McIlroy had made their decisions public in the days leading up to the Open Championship, while Spieth’s news came out two days before the opening game.
Questions came pouring forth and much to Slumbers’ dismay, the issue hung over Royal Troon and the 145th Open like a massive black cloud.
And when McIlroy tossed gas into the fire, saying that there was weak drug-testing programs in place in golf and that he’d watch “events like track and field, swimming, diving — the stuff that matters,” it was an unnecessary shot.
Bad enough, all of that, only it was compounded by the silliness about how he never got into golf “to grow the game.” Far too good an athlete and far too good a person to get caught up in that nonsense, McIlroy wasn’t able to atone himself when he finally hit Royal Troon.
Like Spieth and Day, McIlroy got the rotten side of the draw. Like Spieth and Day, McIlroy didn’t score well for 36 holes and when the frustration boiled over Saturday and he slammed a 3 wood to the turf, the petulance was tough to watch.
He’s always conducted himself nicely; but not this week.
Unfortunately, none of the other stars stepped up, either. Day came up with yet another injury (ribs) and never did better than a round of 70. Johnson at one point was seen attempting a shot over a gorse bush, only he hit his ball smack into it. Spieth groused to his caddie about photographers squeezing him a bit on Saturday and created a bit of a stir that had reporters chasing him into Sunday. All in all, a most forgettable week for each of them, no matter that McIlroy closed with 67 for what can be definitely called a “back-door T-5” and Johnson’s Sunday 70 got him into a share of ninth. Day was joint 22nd and Spieth grouped with others in 30th.
If there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s that the next major, the PGA, begins July 28.
“I think that’s good for us. I think that we feel that we’re ready for it to start next week, if need be,” Spieth said.
Basking in his joy, Slumbers will let PGA of America officials worry about how the top four names comport themselves at the next major.
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