When Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson strode onto the first tee on Sunday, the sun shone for the first time in two and a half days. A message from the golfing gods: “If there is to be a meltdown today, you can’t blame us.”
Rather than melting in the furnace, Stenson and Mickelson glowed like rods of iron. It was High Noon in Troon, without the spurs jangling on their spikes.
When Stenson dropped a shot at the first after taking three putts, it looked like his weapon might have jammed. It was only Stenson’s sixth bogey of the week.
Mickelson, having parachuted in to within six inches – the American makes the miraculous looks mundane – suddenly had the lead after a two-shot swing.
As Mickelson was lining up a chip over a bunker at the second, a commentator could be heard whispering, with great authority: “If he gets this to within six feet, it’s a great shot.” Mickelson missed by the width of a fag paper. “I still say sticking it to within six feet is a great shot,” chuckled the commentator.
Meanwhile, Stenson had recalibrated. The Swede poured in his 12-footer for birdie and a share of the lead on 12 under, before ducking ahead on the third.
After producing another chip at the fourth he couldn’t have placed any better, Mickelson ambled onto the green grinning his sheepish grin. That grin that says: “I’m not sure I should be enjoying this, but I’m absolutely loving it.”
An eagle for Mickelson was closely followed by a birdie for Stenson and suddenly they were all square again on 14 under. Fans were staring up at the leaderboard and laughing, a sure sign in sport that great things are happening.
By the sixth, the rivals had become so entwined it was as if they were desperate to become individuals again. After Mickelson played a low pitch that skidded and checked eight feet short, Stenson lobbed it high and spun it back to within half that distance. Mickelson made birdie uphill, Stenson made birdie downhill.
By the seventh, the galleries had swelled to six or seven deep. Given sparse crowds over the first three days at Royal Troon, it was heartening to see.
On the seventh green, Mickelson had a let-off when Stenson missed a birdie putt from six feet. On the Postage Stamp eighth, the Swede made his birdie putt disappear from 12 feet, before Mickelson missed from six. Stenson clear again.
By the time they reached the turn, the wind had roared itself hoarse and was a whisper of its former self. It was those golfing gods again, smoothing off the edges of the usually treacherous back nine and paving a way to greatness.
As they marched down the 10th, the galleries had swelled to such an extent that there were eyes peering out of every gorse bush. Stenson and Mickelson reduced the third hardest hole on the course to a couple of hearty blows and a couple of single putts. This was golf, but not as those eyes had ever seen it.
As they prepared to putt on the 11th green, a train rushed by. Little did the passengers know it – as they drank weak tea, munched on curled sandwiches and peered through the window – but they snatched a few seconds of greatness.
When Stenson missed his par putt, Mickelson was level again on 16 under. As they made their way to the 12th tee, both might have been thinking: “Four/five under for the day and he still hasn’t gone away. What do I have to do?”
Mickelson’s par at the 12th must have felt like a birdie – a prodded chip out of the green-side rough, a great saving putt and there was that grin again.
When Mickelson visited the toilet by the 14th green, Stenson followed him in. The Swede emerged the more inspired, ramming in a 12-foot birdie putt to edge ahead again entering the home straight.
And then came the spurt, at the long 15th. A monster eagle putt from Stenson, while Mickelson could only make par. The roar from the grandstand was redolent of a Ryder Cup. Poor old Phil, he’s lost enough of them.
Mickelson’s top drawer is so high he needs a step ladder to reach it. But by the 16th tee, it was almost empty. Had his eagle attempt dropped rather than missing by centimetres, things might have been different. Instead, Stenson scrambled brilliantly from the rough and matched Mickelson’s birdie from all of four feet.
By the 17th tee, Stenson had squeezed Mickelson so hard you could almost hear the pips squeak. Stenson stiffed his tee shot to within eight feet, Mickelson missed the green. Mickelson buried a 10-footer for par, but the game was up.
On the 18th green, Mickelson could have been forgiven for crying. If you had said to him on Saturday night that he’d shoot 65 and still lose by three shots, he would have laughed and laughed – and still been laughing in the morning.
But having come up short to magnificence, in the form of a round of 63, the only thing to do was grin his sheepish grin. That grin that says: “I’m not sure I should be enjoying this, but I’m absolutely loving it.” He wasn’t the only one.
It was sad that there had to be a loser. But there is one thing we do know: the Open Championship is a place for old men.
Or at least middle-aged ones. Including the 40-year-old Stenson, four of the last six Open champions have been into their fifth decade. In contrast, since 1990 there have been only six winners over 40 in the other three major championships combined.
In addition, Stenson won the Claret Jug for the first time at the 12th attempt. When Mickelson triumphed at Muirfield in 2013, beating Stenson into second, he was playing his 20th Open. In a world of muscle-bound kids who can drive a ball halfway to the moon, it’s nice to know there is still room for craftsmanship.
Thank the golfing gods that they negotiated that deal, so that the wind and the rain had the afternoon off and the sun was persuaded to shine again. When you witness greatness such as we saw on Sunday, nobody is blaming anyone.
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