What a way to grab you and your country’s maiden major championship victory.
Sweden’s Henrik Stenson tore up the record books at Royal Troon with a final-round 63 that not only equalled the lowest round in majors history but gave him the lowest winning 72-hole total in relation to par at 20 under and a winning total of 264 that eclipsed Greg Norman’s mark of 267 set in 1993 at Royal St George’s.
That runner-up Phil Mickelson matched not only Norman’s winning score and Tiger Woods’s previous record mark of 19-under, and still had to settle for second place, three back from Stenson, goes some of the way to summarising the quality of links golf displayed by this championship’s chief protagonists.
For it is difficult to imagine Stenson reaching the heights he did without Mickelson at his side, vying for supremacy.
The pair had been duelling since Saturday, when Mickelson, who had shot an opening 63, took a one-shot lead over the world number six into the third round, By day’s end on Saturday, it was the Swede who had edged in front, his 68 sending him to 12 under par with Mickelson’s 70 taking the five-time major winner to 11 under.
When battle resumed yesterday, the play was gripping as Stenson, 40, lost his slender lead at the first with bogey to the American’s birdie but never went behind again in a fascinating head-to-head contest.
Not that he ran away with it, Stenson needing to be at his absolute best to see off 46-year-old Mickelson, who had eclipsed the Swede to take his first Claret Jug at Muirfield in 2013, making him the seventh runner-up from mainland Europe since 2000.
Mickelson, 46, will quite likely never play so well and not win a tournament.
At the par-five fourth he had eagled to move to 14 under, only to be joined there by Stenson, who sank his third birdie in-a-row.
They both birdied the sixth and Stenson edged back in front at the Postage Stamp eighth, Mickelson unable to match his birdie putt as the Swede moved to 16 under.
He reached 17-under with another birdie at 10 and though the 11th proved once again to be heartbreak hole as he lipped-out for a three-putt to fall back into a tie at 16 under, the best was still to come.
At 14 he drained a long putt to lead by one and at the next holed one from even further out, 51 feet from off the green, to finally put daylight between him and the American, two shots ahead.
Mickelson had cursed the golfing gods on Thursday as his lipped-out putt denied him a major-record 62 and they were playing their cruel tricks again, an eagle attempt at 16 shaving the hole. It left him with a tap-in birdie, but even that was eclipsed by a brilliant up and down from the rough by Stenson who sank his third birdie in succession.
A par apiece at 17 sent Stenson to the brink of victory with a two-shot cushion at the 18th, and though his tee shot flirted with a fairway bunker, there was still time for an epic putt, the ball curling in the hole for his 10th birdie in a remarkable round.
The Swede became the first continental Open champion since Seve Ballesteros in 1988, consigning the American left-hander to his 11th major runner-up finish but joining Mickelson at the age of 40 as one of four Champion golfers since 2011 to win The Open past their 40th birthday.
“We’re only just getting started, aren’t we?” Stenson said, having finally got over the winning line in his 42nd major start. “You never know once you open the floodgates what might happen.
“It hasn’t quite sunk in yet, but I’m very happy.
“Very proud of the way I played. It was a great match with Phil. It seemed like it was going to be a two-horse race, and it was all the way to the end.
“I knew he wasn’t going to back down at any point, and in a way that makes it easier for myself. I knew I had to keep on pushing, keep on giving myself birdie chances and he wasn’t going to give it to me, so I had to pull away.
“I’m just delighted I managed to do that with a couple of birdies at the right time on the final stretch.” Rarely can a golfer have come up short having bookended a tournament, let alone a major, with scores of 63 and 65, his 17-under finish matching Wood’s 2000 victory heroics, that bogey-free final round eclipsing even his wonderful final-round 66 for the title at Muirfield. It’s probably the best I’ve played and not won,” Mickelson said. “I think that’s probably why it’s disappointing in that I don’t have a point where I can look back and say, ‘I should have done that’ or ‘had I only done this’.
“I played a bogey-free round of 65 on the final round of a major, usually that’s good enough to do it, and I got beaten.”
While Mickelson and Stenson were doing their Troon two-step the rest of the field were jostling for positions, reduced to also-rans by Saturday evening.
Stenson had started the day six shots ahead of the pack and closed it 14 strokes to the good, American JB Holmes claiming third place at six under with a 69, a shot ahead of compatriot Steve Stricker and two in front of Sergio Garcia, Tyrrell Hatton and Rory McIlroy, whose closing 67 was his best score of the week.
McIlroy led golf’s big four home at the end of a week that had promised so much for the top-ranked quartet but ended with them reduced to a sideshow. US Open champion and pre-tournament favourite Dustin Johnson sidled into a tie for ninth with a 70 while Day’s 71 pegged the Australian at one over par as he turns his attention to a PGA Championship title defence in 10 days. Like McIlroy, Spieth produced his best on the final day, a three-under 68 moving him to two over.
One to forget for the young guns.
A day to live long in the memory for Stenson and Sweden.
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