Golf’s original ‘Duel in the Sun’ saw Tom Watson battle it out with Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977. In Saturday’s final round, the pair played some phenomenal golf with Watson emerging victorious by one shot thanks to a second consecutive five-under-par 65.
Fast forward 39 years to nearby Royal Troon where Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson were slugging it out. Stenson was eyeing his first major title while Mickelson had his sights set on his second Open, and his sixth major overall.
There was a bit of Open history between the pair with Stenson runner-up at Muirfield in 2003 to Mickelson who won with an inspired final round 66 which his caddy ‘Bones’ Mackay told Golfworld was “the best of his career”.
Earlier in 2016, Mickelson commented to Stenson that he had the game to win majors when they were paired together at the US Open at Oakmont. But it was an unhappy week for the Swede who pulled out after two days with a knee injury.
They played together again at the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, a week before the Open. While they finished outside the top 10, the pair were in feeling confident ahead of the trip to Troon.
Mickelson flew out of the gates and had a birdie for what would have been the first 62 in a major championship. It somehow stayed out, but Lefty’s eight-under-par 63 saw him lead the field by two.
Stenson shot a 68 but told his swing coach Pete Cowen before Friday’s second round, “This is the week.” He also had added motivation following the death of his friend Mike Gerbich, saying, “I never got stuck thinking about why I hit it left or why I had a bad break.”
The previous few months had been up and down for Stenson. He had been playing exceptionally well without winning until taking the BMW International in Munich three weeks before the Open.
On that Friday, in the best of the weather, Stenson shot a 65 to move up to second place. Mickelson defied the rain to go round in 69 and lead by one, but then the weather turned foul with the likes of Patrick Reed, Justin Rose and Justin Thomas tumbling down the leaderboard after fine opening rounds.
Stenson was two clear of the pack but there was soon daylight between the leaders and the rest. The Europe Ryder Cup star shot 68 to Mickelson’s 70 to lead by one going into the final round, and the American was lucky not to be further back after finding the thick gorse on the 12th and somehow escaping with a par.
With Bill Haas five strokes behind Mickelson, it was all set up for a final day duel. Sunday morning brought gale-force winds, persuading the organisers to employ some generous pin positions. When the wind relented, low scores were suddenly the order of the day.
Mickelson drew first blood, birdying the first to go into the lead as Stenson made bogey. That could have dented Stenson’s confidence, especially with an elusive first major up for grabs, but it only succeeded in galvanising him.
He birdied the next three holes with Mickelson eagling the 4th to leave both on 14-under. They were a mile clear of the rest of the field and Stenson told Mickelson, “We’ve got a pretty good better-ball going on here.”
Pretty good was a serious understatement. What transpired was a shootout for the ages with an atmosphere to match. The Ryder Cup had come to Troon with the locals getting behind Stenson while Mickelson, as a previous Open champion, had plenty of support too.
The only pity was that it did not have a wider audience. This was the first year of Sky taking over the coverage from the BBC and, as with cricket, it can only harm the game in terms of youngsters taking up the sport down the line.
Those that did tune in were transfixed. Even Jack Nicklaus, who admits to not being the most ardent golf viewer these days, said, “I sat down and watched the whole thing. I couldn’t stop watching.”
While there was plenty of banter between the two protagonists, who had enjoyed a friendly relationship over the years, Stenson was supremely confident of victory. He and his caddy Gareth Lord had made a bet in 2005 that he would quit smoking if Stenson won a major. When Lord lit up on the seventh, Stenson told him to enjoy it as that would be his last cigarette.
Stenson went in front on the famous Postage Stamp, the short par-3 eighth hole. He was 20 feet from the hole after his tee-shot, twice as far as Mickleson, but he rolled in a beautiful putt to go to 16-under. Mickelson missed.
There was one in it at the turn before Stenson almost repeated the trick at the 10th when he made birdie. But this time Mickelson matched him to stay one behind. It was soon all square as Stenson three-putted on the 11th.
Mickelson was playing superbly. He holed a long putt to save par on 12 and then just missed with a 35-foot birdie attempt on the next. But Stenson then made birdie from inside 20 feet on the short 14th to go back into the lead and send the crowd wild.
Then came the putt which all but secured the Claret Jug. After an indifferent approach, Stenson was some 50 feet from the hole with Mickelson well inside him. But then Stenson “gave it a good slap” and the ball rolled in for a birdie which took plenty out of both men. As a stunned Mickelson tried to focus on his putt, which he missed, Stenson was practically hyperventilating with Lord having to tell him to breathe.
Leading by two, Stenson gave his opponent a sniff as he found the rough off the 16th tee. Mickelson was on the green in two and had a 25-footer for an eagle. This could have been the swing he was looking for. But his putt just swung wide at the last moment, and Stenson got up and down from the bunker to halve the hole in birdies and maintain his two-shot advantage.
It was all over on the par-3 17th as Stenson hit a superb four-iron to six feet and Mickelson missed the green. He managed to get up and down and Stenson showed he was human by missing a putt.
There were no alarms for Stenson on the last as he found the green with his approach. He was closer in than Mickelson who two-putted before Stenson sealed victory with his fourth birdie in five holes to match Mickelson’s 63 on the opening day.
It was an astonishing display, particularly in the closing holes under huge pressure. As Troon local Colin Montgomerie said, “The only birdie Henrik Stenson missed was the easiest putt, on 17, or he’d have birdied the last five holes on the strongest back nine that we have in golf.”
Mickelson had to settle for second despite playing some fabulous golf. “I played a bogey-free round and shot 65 in the final round of a major. And I got beat.”
Scandinavia’s first major winner took silver on golf’s return to the Olympics the following month in Rio behind Justin Rose. Stenson then went another year without a win before securing victory at the Wyndham Championship. This year he was tied for fifth in the Masters and tied for sixth in the US Open.
Mickelson had not won a tournament since his 2013 Open success and that drought lasted until March 2018 when he took the WGC-Mexico Championship. At the US Open, he was lucky not to be disqualified when he chased a moving ball on the green and hit it in frustration. But the 48-year-old is enjoying his golf, as shown by his ridiculous flop shot over former pro Gary Evans, and could well produce more fireworks at Carnoustie.
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Also published on Medium.