All too often, the British Open is man versus nature, golfers battling swirling winds and sideways rain to hang onto some semblance of dignity and under-par scores. But the 145th British Open at Royal Troon was man versus man, Henrik Stenson versus Phil Mickelson, and the result — a Stenson victory that was in doubt until the final holes — was one of the best duels in golf history.
This was golf as a heavyweight prizefight, two of the game’s best standing toe-to-toe and delivering their best, hole after hole after hole. In this corner, wearing black slacks and black pullover, the beloved Hall of Fame veteran seeking a major that would certify his career as among the best of all time. In this corner, wearing black slacks and a gray-and-black shirt, the game’s best player without a major, the genial Swede who was seeking to put a line in his biography above “guy who once played a shot in his underwear.” He’s done that.
Phil Mickelson. Henrik Stenson. Two of golf’s great stories, staging a two-man show at the British Open. Mickelson ended an exceptional week by fluttering just the tiniest bit in the final few holes, and that was enough to allow the relentless Stenson to shore up and add to a lead that changed hands seven times in the first 14 holes.
Nobody started the day within five strokes of the leaders, and nobody got any closer all afternoon. (J.B. Holmes finished third, 11 strokes back of Mickelson, 14 back of Stenson.) That left the Stenson-Mickelson showdown with the feel of match play, and scoring it as such, you get a sense of how very close the entire afternoon was:
Start: Stenson up 1
Hole 1: Mickelson up 1
Hole 2: Even
Hole 3: Stenson up 1
Hole 4: Even
Hole 5: Even
Hole 6: Even
Hole 7: Even
Hole 8: Stenson up 1
Hole 9: Stenson up 1
Hole 10: Stenson up 1
Hole 11: Even
Hole 12: Even
Hole 13: Even
Hole 14: Stenson up 1
Hole 15: Stenson up 2
Hole 16: Stenson up 2
Hole 17: Stenson up 2
Hole 18: Stenson up 3
STENSON FRONT 9
MICKELSON FRONT 9
STENSON BACK 9
MICKELSON BACK 9
Mickelson, 46, and Stenson, 40, are longtime rivals, playing partners, and colleagues. They’ve been paired together this year at the Masters, the U.S. Open and the Scottish Open. They greeted one another warmly and smiled at the others successes, at least until late in the round when the pressure ratcheted up and the time for conviviality passed.
Each player’s Achilles heel on this day was the size of a penny, but golf exposes every weakness. Stenson’s troubles came with the putter, three-putting on both the first and 11th to surrender the outright lead. Mickelson, meanwhile, so accurate off the tee all week, flashed a bit of his old play-it-from-among-the-customers style, drifting critical tee shots off among the populace.
But this was key: each man was able to mask his few misplays with torrents of brilliance. Stenson followed his initial lead-lost bogey with birdies on the next three holes and five of the next seven. Mickelson bailed himself out of an ugly 12th by going up and down from an almost blind hillside shot to hold onto a share of the lead.
The turning point came with just five holes left in the match — er, tournament. Stenson poured in two birdies, including a magnificent 51-foot putt from the fringe on 15 that would have gone in if the hole was half its size.
That putt put Stenson up two strokes on Mickelson, and Mickelson’s eagle putt on 16 remained on the lip of the cup, ending his last, best chance to cut into Stenson’s lead. Even Mickelson’s birdie on the par-3 17th couldn’t close the gap, thanks to a dart-perfect approach from Stenson.
The golfers walked to the 18th tee with Stenson up two, needing only to hold off Mickelson with a conservative hole. With the kind of good fortune that had characterized his entire round, Stenson’s tee shot stopped just short of a fairway bunker that could have derailed his entire round.
Needing only a par, Stenson birdied, carding a 63, joining Johnny Miller as the only other player ever to shoot 63 to win a major.
Further down the leaderboard, everyone else was jockeying for third place and a ranking that will look a whole lot better on a career retrospective than it does now. Rory McIlroy pulled his usual trick of performing magnificently with no major stakes on the line, carding a four-under round that was one of the day’s best outside the leaders. Steve Stricker, 49 and still without a major, performed well enough at what he now calls his part-time job to earn a few more major exemptions. Sergio Garcia, the finest performer in majors without a victory, also notched a top-five finish, while newcomer Andrew “Beef” Johnston held up well under major championship pressure to finish in the top 10.
For Mickelson, the day ended yet again in major heartbreak, with yet another second-place finish, his 11th overall in majors, second all-time to Jack Nicklaus’ 19. But for Stenson, Sunday was a validation of a career well played, a bravura performance that will go down as one of the finest in the century-plus history of the British Open.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.