Before Sunday, you may have known Swedish golfer Henrik Stenson as the best golfer to never win a major. That distinction is now rendered obsolete: at 40, Stenson became a major champion with his win at Royal Troon, the site of the 2016 Open Championship.
How he got there, though, is what’s so impressive about his victory. On Sunday, he and Phil Mickelson quite possibly delivered the greatest final round in the history of major championship golf. Yes, that history includes Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, and many others. Stenson and Mickelson may have given us a final-round duel the likes of which we have never seen before.
The tournament and this story began on Thursday when Mickelson shot an opening-round 63 to tie the major championship record for the lowest score in a round. Phil tied 28 others through his accomplishment; he had this putt on the 18th hole to break the record. He came so close, and yet he ended up so far away.
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 14, 2016
In Friday’s second round, Stenson shot a 65 to pull within one stroke of Mickelson, who shot 69 to maintain a one-shot lead. By the time Saturday came around, Stenson and Mickelson made The Open a two-man race; Stenson headed into Sunday with a one-shot lead. However, the gap between the second-place Mickelson and third-place Bill Haas was a full five strokes. It says something that most people were paying attention to the rest of the field because of a guy whose nickname is “Beef”.
But Sunday is where these two all-world golfers (Stenson in particular) would stake their claim to history.
Ironically, the Swede started his final round with a bogey at the first. Phil would take the lead with a birdie at that hole; it would be the only time Mickelson led outright all day. Stenson birdied the next three holes, but Phil countered with an eagle at the par-five fourth. Stenson took the lead back with a birdie on the eighth but gave it right back with a bogey on eleven. He would reclaim the lead once more with a birdie on the par-three fourteenth. His signature moment of the day, and maybe his career, came on the fifteenth. He had this putt for birdie and a two-shot lead. The problem was that the putt was from at least fifty feet away. That wouldn’t be much of an obstacle for Stenson, though, as he drilled the putt and even walked it in because it was his day and he’s a legend:
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 17, 2016
Another two birdies on sixteen and eighteen sealed the win for Stenson. His 63 on Sunday tied the one-round record set by Mickelson and others; what goes around comes around. A 62 would have broken the record and really rubbed it in on Phil, but a 63 will have to do. The win marked the first major victory of Stenson’s career, and at age 40, it probably means more to him than it might to other golfers on tour. Stenson also broke the aggregate score (264) and under par (-20) records for The Open. His performance will truly live on forever.
But why is it important for sports fans to appreciate Stenson’s performance Sunday and over the course of the tournament?
It’s important because in sports, we seem to value coming up clutch in important moments. We have discussions, albeit ridiculous and untrue, about supposed “clutch genes” and whether athletes have them or not. We espouse this course of action when we want to find ways to discredit LeBron James and others while elevating players like Michael Jordan to God-like status. However, we tend to think of this as coming up big for one’s team and we don’t necessarily believe that players want to come up clutch for themselves.
In golf, it’s obviously different. Players are only really playing for themselves and the love of the game. Beside from the Ryder Cup and other events, there is really no team aspect to the sport. Players are playing to win but earnings don’t hurt, either. It’s what we expect, and frankly, what we want, out of our athletes: playing the game out of competitiveness and competition.
But even without the team aspect of the sport, it’s hard not to appreciate what Stenson and Mickelson did over the weekend. Playing at a golf course that was far from easy, they chose to instead make a mockery of it. Mickelson, even in second place, finished a full eleven strokes ahead of J.B. Holmes in third. It was truly like watching two men among boys as they carved up Royal Troon and made the course look like a joke. In reality, it’s one of the toughest courses in Scotland and in the world, but you wouldn’t know that if you only watched the Henrik-Phil pairing.
So where do we go from here? For starters, the PGA Championship begins next Thursday at Baltusrol Golf Course in Springfield, New Jersey. After the PGA, which is being played two weeks early this year, the world’s best golfers will head to the complete mess that is the Rio Olympics, hoping to secure gold for themselves and their country. This will display something that we don’t often see in the golf: the team aspect of the sport.
But let’s stay in the present and appreciate what Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson gave us Sunday: a final round for the ages. It was every bit as good as the Tom Watson/Jack Nicklaus “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry in 1977; Nicklaus himself even took to Twitter to admit it. Ironically, Mickelson’s last major win came at the 2013 Open Championship, when he birdied the final four holes to win at Muirfield. Who finished second that year? Henrik Stenson. It’s a small world after all.
Stenson got his revenge on Sunday, and he did it with a performance the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time. So we should appreciate that wild Sunday in Scotland: we may never see anything like it ever again.