They have been playing what we now know as the British Open (or The Open) golf tournament since 1860. To put that another way, that was one year BEFORE the beginning of the American Civil War. They cancelled a few of them for such world shaking events as World War I and World War II, but the one that was just completed was the 145th staging of “The Open.”
And because of its history and importance, you can honestly say that pretty much ALL of the greats of golf have won this tournament and had their names engraved on the Claret Jug. From Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros of yesteryear to more contemporary names like Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson of now, you can easily say that everyone who was or is anyone has plied their trade in the United Kingdom at The Open.
And in the entire time they’ve been playing this, there has probably NEVER been a player who played better on the final day than Henrik Stenson of Sweden did on this Sunday of this 145th Open. For on this day, Stenson shot a 63 on the final round to win the tournament by three strokes over American Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon golf course in Scotland. His 63 tied the greatest score ever achieved in any major golf tournament. It tied the greatest round ever scored in The Open. It tied the greatest round ever scored in the final round of any major. Stenson finished 20 freaking strokes under par for these four rounds of a major golf tournament.
Stenson had entered the final round leading Phil Mickelson by one stroke. It had a lot of similarities to the great duel between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry, Scotland in 1977 in that Stenson and Mickelson seemed to be playing at a level far better than anyone else in the field. Everyone knows how the pressure of final rounds of majors have their way of causing golfers in the field to fall apart and crack, but instead of cracking, Stenson (and Mickelson) played at a level so superior to the rest of the field that Mickelson’s second place score was a whopping 11 strokes better than the third place finisher.
In nearly every major ever contested, when a player enters the final round trailing by one stroke and shoots a bogey free 65, that player wins. Not so this year for Phil Mickelson as he had the bad luck of playing against Henrik Stenson and his amazing 63.
Stenson’s 63 included two BOGIES where he missed putts of about five or so feet. Otherwise, that 63 would have been a 61. He had TEN birdies on the round. During the final five holes, with a five time major winning Mickelson tied with him at 16 under and breathing down his neck, he birdied four of the last five holes and barely missed the one putt he didn’t make for a birdie by about an inch.
Stenson was hitting EVERY tee shot either right down the middle onto the fairway, or, when he missed the fairway, it was only by a few feet and AWAY from the extremely penal gorse or heavy rough. The Swede has long been known as a great ball striker with his irons, but on this day, he was hitting ALL of his approach shots close to pin high and usually very comfortably close to the hole so he could have a putt at birdie.
The difference between today’s Henrik Stenson and the man who had prior to this never won a major was his putting. For today at Troon, Stenson was MAKING those putts that he used to miss. He had to make well over a hundred feet worth of putts on this day including a back breaking (for Mickelson) 50 footer on the 15th hole.
When you drive the ball long and straight into the fairway and away from the rugged stuff off the fairway, when you hit your irons close to the pin AND you make more than your fair share of your putts at a British Open, you are playing a different game than the rest of your competitors. That Mickelson was able to join Stenson and finish 17 under himself (don’t forget, third place was only 6 under par) showed how much these two had lapped the field.
So Henrik Stenson has won himself his first major. He joins U.S. Open winner Dustin Johnson as the second “excellent player” (Johnson and Stenson both have double figures in wins on the PGA and European tours) to nab themselves a major this season. Even though the golf world had all but handed a couple of this year’s majors to the so called big three of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, it now appears they will have to bust their butts to win one of them (the final event the PGA Championship is in two weeks).
This only goes to show how hard it is to win a major. If Stenson hadn’t been in this tournament (and just a couple of weeks ago, Stenson withdrew from the U.S. Open due to assorted injuries), Mickelson would have won the Claret Jug by eleven strokes. Sometimes, it just happens to be YOUR week to shine. Stenson had to put together the masterpiece of his golfing career to beat the short game wizard.
This year at The Open, this time at Troon, it was Henrik Stenson’s time and for that, he now has himself a major and he gets to see his name on a trophy with the greatest golfers who ever lived. And for one day, one tournament, he probably would have beaten them ALL.