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Open Championship: Stenson Wins One for the Ages

Len Hochberg

Hochberg covers golf for RotoWire. A veteran sports journalist, he contributes to Sports on Earth and was an editor and reporter at The Washington Post for many years.

After Henrik Stenson rolled in yet another birdie putt, his sixth in 10 holes on Sunday at Royal Troon, Johnny Miller said on NBC, “I think Phil is starting to feel like he’s playing against Tiger.”

Stenson went on to notch four more birdies in the round of his life, out-dueling Phil Mickelson to win his first major title in what will be remembered as an Open Championship for the ages. Stenson shot an 8-under 63, two better than Mickelson’s bogey-free 65, as the duo staged a stirring duel while running away from the field on a Sunday at a major.

Stenson finished four rounds at 20-under 264, three clear of Mickelson, who was a whopping 11 clear of J.B. Holmes in third.

The Swede tied or broke a bunch of records in what is already being described as one of the great rounds in golf history. Stenson is the ninth golfer to capture his first major after age 40, and he did so in his 42nd attempt. By contrast, Mickelson needed 47 before breaking through at the 2004 Masters.

Long considered among the best ball strikers in the world, and perhaps the best iron player, Stenson has always been held back by his putting. Not on Sunday. He rolled in 10 birdies (and also had two three-putts), including what proved to be the final dagger, a 51-footer on No. 15 to open a two-stroke edge with three to play. For good measure, Stenson sank a 20-footer for birdie on 18 to make the final margin three shots.

Just like objects in your rear-view mirror, Mickelson was much closer than he appeared to be.

That final birdie allowed Stenson to tie Miller for the lowest final round ever for a major winner. His 20-under total tied Jason Day’s all-time mark set only last year at the PGA Championship. And his 264 broke David Toms’ 265 at the 2001 PGA for lowest aggregate in a major (Mickelson finished second there, too).

Of course, all this took place on a course rendered so benign by the lack of wind and weather that it was if Stenson and Mickelson were playing indoors. There were more than a dozen rounds in the 60s on Sunday and, while there were also some very high scores, those mostly occurred early in the round, before the wind died down and when it was significantly colder.

Troon on Sunday was no comparison to Oakmont on that 1973 day, when Miller shot 63 (without modern equipment). And did anyone even remember Toms’ 265 as being some significant accomplishment? My goodness, Stenson putted for birdie on every single hole.

Of course, history will remember none of this, only that Stenson and Mickelson harkened memories of the fabled 1977 Duel in the Sun, when Tom Watson edged Jack Nicklaus on Sunday, 65-66, to win the Open at Turnberry. (Not to be a complete curmudgeon, but there’s a reason it was called Duel in the Sun: There was no rain.)

What took place on Sunday at Troon certainly deserves to go down as among the most memorable in 145 Open Championships. The easy conditions were usurped by the incredible drama, the tremendous shot making and the whole mano-a-mano thing we sports fans love.

Stenson has long been money in the bank for gamers, not with victories but with consistently high finishes. That likely won’t change. But in the near term, specifically at the PGA Championship – which seemingly starts in 20 minutes but in reality is 10 days away – don’t expect too much from the Swede.

In becoming the first man from his country to ever win a major, he’ll carry the magnitude of a life-altering Sunday for some time.

MONDAY BACKSPIN

Henrik Stenson

One more thought on the Open winner: Now up to No. 5 in the world, he’ll be the highest-ranked golfer at the Olympics. Kudos to Stenson for going to Rio.

Phil Mickelson

Oh, Phil. There’s really nothing Mickelson did wrong; he was just outgunned. Which happens to him a lot. The runner-up to Stenson, and Toms, are two of 11 second-place finishes in majors, trailing only Nicklaus’ 19. A sixth major title would’ve tied Mickelson with Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo for 12th all-time. Mickelson is now up to No. 13 in the world, his best since late 2014, and, interestingly, he has overtaken Patrick Reed. You have to wonder whether Mickelson would’ve gone to the Olympics had he been in that position last week. Probably not. More immediately, Mickelson has to be considered a contender at the PGA. He won the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol, where the tournament will be played this year. If you think that’s too far back to consider, remember that Mickelson was third at the 2004 Open at Troon.

Steve Stricker

At 49, Stricker is even older than Mickelson. His T4 showing at the Open, his best at a major since solo second to Vijay Singh at the 1998 PGA, will disrupt his impending Champions Tour schedule. First, Stricker will be at Baltusrol. But after turning 50 in February, he’ll be eligible for the Masters and a return trip to the Open at Royal Birkdale. At an age when golfers start getting plagued with the yips, Stricker needed only 108 putts for four rounds at Troon, tops in the field. He’s second on tour (behind Day) in strokes gained-putting.

Rory McIlroy

McIlroy shot a final-round 67, best outside of Stenson and Mickelson, to soar up the leaderboard into a tie for fifth. He was never in contention, of course, but it was his eighth top-10 in a major in his last 11 starts. McIlroy has five top-10s in PGAs, including two wins.

Sergio Garcia

Among the highest owned in DraftKings play, Garcia didn’t disappoint, tying for fifth. Of course, it’s another major without a win for the Spaniard, whose tie for fifth registered a 12th top-five in a major, most among active golfers who haven’t won one. He’ll likely be highly owned at the PGA and deservedly so. Garcia is a lot like Stenson in that he’s among the very best tee to green, always held back by his shaky putter.

Tyrrell Hatton

Little known to many American golf fans before last week’s runner-up at the Scottish Open, the rising Englishman tied McIlroy and Garcia for fifth and is now up to 55th in the world. He qualified for the PGA field, but it would be asking a lot of him to expect a good showing at Baltusrol.

Bill Haas

For all of Haas’ accomplishments, he had never so much as had a top-10 in a major. But he was tied for ninth with Dustin Johnson and Soren Kjeldsen at Troon. And that was with a final-round 75 – yes, in those same benign conditions in which Stenson and Mickelson exceled. He’s always lurking on a back burner when it comes to lineup consideration. He was T65 last year at the PGA, but before that had four straight decent showings, including two top-25s.

Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Zach Johnson, Jason Dufner and Jimmy Walker (and their chef)

Fowler, Thomas and Spieth, kind of a golf Rat Pack, were joined by Johnson, Dufner and Walker to share a house at the Open. They also, of course, brought their chef. Don’t we all? No? Oh. … Johnson was T12, Dufner was T22 and Walker missed the cut (did he have to pay for all four days?). But the Rat Packers performed below expectations, Spieth needing a good Sunday just to tie for 30th, while Fowler was T46 and Thomas T53. It’s hard to believe this buddy-buddy stuff at a big tournament serves them well; things haven’t gone all that well for them since their springtime “Brocation.” Imagine Federer-Djokovic-Nadal bunking together at Wimbledon? How about Borg-McEnroe-Connors? (Good chance of fistfights in that trio.) It’s one thing to have camaraderie on tour; it’s another to pal around with the “enemy” during competition.

Callum Shinkwin

I don’t have anything to report here, I just like saying “Callum Shinkwin.” … Actually, Shinkwin was largely unheard of entering the Open but with a spike in ownership. Why? He had top-10s in his past two outings, the French and Scottish Opens, and a bargain-basement price of $5,400. But he trunk-slammed with a 73-76. The moral of the story is, don’t think you are pulling one over on your fellow gamers. There’s a reason Callum Shinkwin was 222nd in the world. And that reason was, he had two out-of-character outings that vaulted him from No. 336. To expect something grand from Shinkwin in his first major, especially an Englishman in the Open Championship, was an incredible reach.

Aaron Baddeley

Baddeley won the opposite-field Barbasol Championship in Alabama, his first victory in five years. He’s long been one of the top putters on tour, but that’s no longer enough in today’s game. Good for Baddeley, but don’t expect his future play to have a big impact on gamers.

Lee McCoy

Back in the spring, McCoy tied for fourth at the Valspar as an amateur. That put the former University of Georgia All-American on everyone’s radar. He has subsequently turned pro – and missed three straight cuts, including the Barbasol. Just another example of how hard it is to make the leap to the PGA Tour.

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