The epic battle for the 145th Open was truly historic – two men playing at the very peak of their powers, so far ahead of the rest of the field it was if they were engaged in a different sport.
Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson played at a transcendental level, considering what was at stake – it’s hard to believe that any player has played better on any given day than the Swede did yesterday on the South Ayrshire coast. Yet at the start it appeared he might be ready to crumble.
Maybe the golfing gods that had so betrayed Mickelson on the verge of his 62 on the first day – although they’d made up a fair bit to him since – recognised what was afoot when the sun broke through the clouds for the first time in three days just as the duellists emerged.
Mickelson, ever the showman, bounded on to the first tee, kissed his fingertips and then touched the Claret Jug posted at the side of the tee box.
If it was a statement of his relaxed state of mind, it upstaged Stenson immediately. The Swede, having taken a text from countryman Jesper Parnevik urging him to “do what I was unable to do” at Troon in 1997, looked a touch nervy and was tentative on his first two shots, following them with a three-putt.
Mickelson, in contrast, struck his approach stiff and it was the third two-shot swing in the last seven holes of this two-day duel, the first of them in Phil’s favour.
Yet it seemed to settle Stenson and he rolled in two 15-footers at the next two greens to seize the lead again, Mickelson missing from five feet at the third after watching his rival snake a double-breaker into the hole.
The counter-punching continued on the long fourth, Mickelson smashing a 234-yard long iron in to eight feet and making the pout for eagle, Stenson following him in for birdie. A “half” in par threes at the short fifth was almost a welcome relief – tied at 14-under, Beef Johnston the nearest to them seven shots in arrears.
At the long sixth, both had pitches of 80 yards to the flag but although Stenson spun his closer with Mickelson-esque “sauce” to four feet, both players made their birdie putts: 15-under.
The seventh passed, remarkably, without a birdie from either man, Stenson’s six foot chance uphill being the better opportunity.
But at the Postage Stamp, which Stenson had bogeyed from a bunker on Saturday, the Swede grabbed the lead again in an absolute atypical matchplay scenario; holing for 15 feet for birdie as Mickelson missed from eight.
Although both passed up birdie chances at nine, they both made them at ten – Mickelson following Stenson in this time from 14 feet – as they continued to apparently play a different golf course than the other 81 players left in the field. The leader was now a staggering ten shots ahead of third place.
But not for long. On the feared 11, Stenson was short with his approach and three-putted from 60 feet, his par attempt curling out of the hole. Mickelson made his par from the back of the green, and we were all square again.
On the 12th Mickelson’s luck with missing the fairway ran out as he found some high hay on the left, and then turned his second over into some equally knotted stuff on the right. But with Stenson making a solid four, Phil got it out to manageable length on the green, and rolled in a 20 footer to save par.
Phil had done the exact same on Saturday, and followed it by birdieing 13, but this time his putt was off-line and it was another “half” in pars. 24 hours earlier Phil had then suffered the first of those two-shot swings at the short 14th, and Stenson did as he’d done on Saturday – birdie from 15 feet away, back to -17, one shot lead.
And at 15, Stenson finally opened up a cushion. He blocked his second shot slightly right, but with Mickelson 25 feet away, the Swede rolled a 40 foot putt across the green dead weight into the cup, and when the American couldn’t follow, the lead was two.
Mickelson’s last chance, surely, was to eagle the 16th and he came desperately close with a 30 foot putt that died at the edge of the hole. Henrik had been wide left of the green close to the boundary wall of Blackrock House, the house in the middle of the course, but he chipped to five feet and made it to match Phil’s birdie, preserving his advantage.
Phil’s brave par save at 17 kept it to two strokes – Stenson finally missed a birdie chance to finish it off, and his drive at 18 flirted with the edge of the bunker that had snared Greg Norman in 1989.
That was the last bit of tension Henrik would have to endure. He had a clear stance and found the centre of the green, and there was nothing more that Mickelson could do. The Swede’s final putt from 20 feet stopped at the edge and droppe ind, his tenth birdie of the day, a fitting end to one of golf’s greatest spectacles.