MYTHS ARE MADE IN A MOMENT, BUT LEGENDS LAST A LIFETIME; “HIGH NOON AT TROON”
As Henrik Stenson sunk his final putt at the 72nd hole of the 2016 Open Championship, Troon the BBC radio commentary team were already scrambling. They immediately dubbed it “High Noon at Troon”. It had indeed been a classic shootout. Until Troon, it was widely agreed that the legendry ‘Duel in the Sun’ from Turnberry in 1977 had been the greatest head-to-head in Major Championship history. Separated by 25 miles along Scotland’s Ayrshire coast, 40 years on they dared to ask the question now.
On the opening day Phil Mickelson had taken advantage of the best conditions to roll back the years. His putt on 18 rolled around the cup and denied him a 62. The next day Henrik Stenson shot a nearly as impressive 65 in markedly worst conditions to join him at the head of the leaderboard. On the Saturday, paired together, they extended their lead, Henrik hitting the from on the 17th for the first time to carry a one shot lead into the final day. So onto Sunday then, expectation was high. It looked like a two horse race, and a few commentators had indeed permitted themselves to explore dear old memory lane and 1977 before a ball was struck, few could have imagined what would unfold however.
The drama began on the first hole, ‘Sea’. Mickelson’s second shot left him a ‘kick in’ birdie coming to rest a mere 18 inches from the cup. Troon’s opening assignment is hardly one of the more challenging, but somehow Stenson contrived to bogey. It was a dropped shot that might come to be seen as having cost another record, but so early into his round this can’t have been a consideration. In the space of 10 minutes his one shot lead had not only been erased, but turned into a deficit. Mickelson now led the Open again
The Swedes response was both immediate and impressive. A brace of birdies followed at two and three. The lead was restored. We got our first hint that something special might be brewing at the fourth, ‘Dunure’. Stenson completed a hat-trick of birdies, but ‘lefty’ went one better, and sent down a mercurial eagle. Back to all square
The sixth, ‘Turnberry’ used to be the longest hole on the Open roster. Today it’s a compassionate par 5 and birdie opportunity. Both players were left with 10-footers, both obliged. No one said anything, but it was perhaps at this point that we realised it was ‘game on’ as the stakes were getting raised and both were responding. For the first time perhaps you sensed neither was going to blink, and that this could go the distance
Phil Mickelson walked onto the seventh tee 4-under after six holes. The field had been slipped. Any chance of a springer coming from behind had been destroyed in the first hour. This would be a shoot-out between the iceman and the gambler now. Both completed in regulation and came to the ‘Postage Stamp’, the eighth. The tee had been imaginatively pushed forward. The ‘stamp’ was playing at 97 yards, and the hole cut to bring the front bunker into play.
Phil played the better approach shot, leaving a 12 footer. Stenson found the target too but had about 20 foot. Advantage to the American. It was to be the first of many occasions where the tide on any given hole would flow one way, and then the other. It was the Swede who responded and sunk his effort. Pars followed on nine, and the pair completed the outward journey in four under each.
Holes 10, 11 , and 12 had been brutal all week. This was Troon’s very own ‘Amen Corner’, except it was playing appreciably more difficult than the celebrated trinity at Augusta. The previous day the tenth, ‘Sandhills’, had played the most difficult hole on the course. By now however Phil and Henrik were well and truly in the zone. That they matched each other with birdies, leaving the gallery in disbelief. What are we witnessing? Surely they couldn’t keep this up? Surely one of them was going to break?
As they stood on the tee of the notorious ‘Railway Hole’ at eleven, everyone had their hearts in the mouths. If there is one hole on this links that had the capacity to puncture the whole spectacle it’s this one. Already this week Bubba Watson (7) Dustin Johnson (7) Rickie Fowler (8) and Louis Oosthuizen (9) had discovered that gorse and golf balls don’t mix. The spectre of a devastating blow out loomed.
Up until now, Mickelson had been part of a select group who hadn’t dropped a shot at this golfing graveyard. He would maintain that record and tapped in for par. Stenson left himself a tricky six-footer. They’d pretty well sunk everything that had been asked of them until now, but finally it was the Swede who blinked. His putt caught the cup, but stayed out.
The dropped shot had tied them again as they went to the 12th, ‘Fox’. Phil had struggled with the tee shot all week, but sensing that this might his opportunity he was ready to roll the dice and reached for his driver. Not for the first time he carved it off line and sailed into the Ayrshire vegetation. Stenson played the percentages and hit the centre of the fairway. Mickelson’s second was equally as horrible. This time he hooked it and found himself in long grass about 70yds short and blocked out by a hummocky mound. Henrik had hit the heart of the green and left himself a birdie opportunity. The advantage was firmly with Stenson.
‘Lefty’ has earned himself a reputation over decades now from playing unlikely escapes from even more unlikely positions. Somehow he conjured up another and landed on the green but was never in a position to threaten a birdie. The Stenson putt agonisingly missed and against the flow of the hole Phil would salvage a par and get of jail. You sensed that perhaps the momentum had swung to the American with Stenson knowing that one ‘had got away’. They traded on 13 before coming to the par 3, fourteenth. This hole sets up well for Henrik Stenson and he’d enjoyed a success on it all week. It was Phil who ended up nearest though, the Swede needing an 18 footer to maintain his record
Cometh the man, cometh the hour. With an eerie echo of the Postage Stamp played an hour earlier, Stenson from further away holed out. Phil’s effort just failed. Suddenly the one shot lead had been restored as they began the closing four holes, a sequence often felt to be amongst the most challenging on the Open roster
The fifteenth, ‘Crosbie’, is the longest par 4 on the links being just a yard short of 500, and was playing the second most difficult on the course. Only two mighty and truly hit shots will do. Both obliged but Stenson had come to rest some 40 feet away requiring a tricky putt across the width of the green to maintain the advantage. With the final roll of the ball the impossible happened to a thunderous roar. The ball just tip toed over the threshold and dropped. The similarity some 39 years earlier with Tom Watson rattling one in from off the green at the same numbered hole at Turnberry was uncanny. For the first time, Henrik Stenson held a two shot lead
All was not lost however for the American. The sixteenth, ‘Well’, is a par 5 that has plenty of scope in it for violent scoreboard action. Mickelson playing first let rip and drove into the centre of green leaving himself a makeable 15 foot putt for an eagle. Stenson looked rattled, and his reply betrayed it. Drifting left the ball never came back and came rest outside the greenside bunkers, but leaving him a horrible pitch and run from tangled weeds across the green. At least he hadn’t short-sided himself but you kind of knew this could be the decisive shot of the entire contest.
Stenson executed it well but left himself a nasty 8 footer for birdie. The door was open and Mickelson did little wrong. His putt was almost pace perfect but at the very last fraction of a second it just lost its legs and ran out of gas causing a slight deflection and a miss to the left. Stenson held his nerve and they shared birdie fours. If Phil had picked Henrik’s pocket on the 12th, you sensed that he’d been had back on the sixteenth.
The seventeenth, ‘Rabbit’ is the hardest par 3 on the course. Standing on the tee, Phil Mickelson was gulping in deep oxygen to try and summon something. You sensed he knew that he had to convert on the previous hole, and walking away with parity wasn’t going to be enough. When Stenson hit the target, leaving a 15 foot putt it seemed to signal that perhaps the sands were slipping through the hour glass. Mickelson’s response looked tense. His tee shot hung left, kicked, and came to rest below the hole off the green. It would require one of his trademark flop shots to recover this, but instead he elected to try and pitch into the crest to kill the speed and run out onto the putting surface. The impact was heavy though and suddenly he’s looking at a 20 foot putt for par. A dropped shot here and it’s all over. Stenson would open a three shot lead
Phil was going to come back on his shield though. Having played two nervous looking shots he seemed to find liberation with the putter. In it went. Lefty would go down fighting and Henrik Stenson would have to go to the eighteenth with just the one hand on the Claret Jug instead of the two.
The threat on the final hole, ‘Craigend’, is predominantly posed by the bunkers. As Greg Norman discovered in 1989, you hit the one on the right, and you’ll nearly always drop a shot. Reaching for his 3-wood Stenson was about to prove just how much adrenalin can drive a golf-ball. The shot sailed out leaking right. The bunker is 312 yards to the front. A hard bounce. A run. It isn’t stopping. For a terrifying second it suddenly looks like he’s into the sand. Having flirted with it though, the ball comes to rest an uncomfortably close five yards short. The out-of-bounds behind the green is the only score wrecking threat left now
Phil plays his shot to the front of the green and pulls up thirty yards from the cup. Stenson hits the heart and leaves himself 15 foot. It’s all over. The only thing that remains is the final putt, and a possible round of 63 which with poetic symmetry, would equal, and bookend Phil Mickelson’s record equalling score on the first day. In it went. He became only the second in history to fire a final-day 63 to do so – emulating the feat of Johnny Miller when he stormed to the US Open title at Oakmont in 1973. On the Thursday Mickelson’s ball had just lipped out. In some respects Stenson might have come even closer, remember that inexplicable bogey he made right back at the start of his round?
By the time he retired his smoking putter, he’d also gunned down a series of other records. Stenson’s winning score of 20 under was a new Open record in relation to par, eclipsing the 19 under set by Tiger Woods at St Andrews in 2000. The Swede’s overall 72-hole score of 264 is another major record, toppling the 265 set by David Toms at the PGA Championship 15 years ago, he also smashed up the previous Open record of 267 recorded by Greg Norman, at Royal St George’s in 1993. JB Holmes at six under finished a distant third, some eleven shots behind Mickelson. That’s a level superiority which surpassed the ten shot margin from Turnberry in 1977 that Jack had stuck on Hubert Green. This wasn’t so much the case of High Noon at Troon, but equally the story of How the West was Won
Spare a thought for Mickelson though, his final score of 17 under would have been good enough to win 140 of the previous 144 Opens, without Stenson we’d have been lauding his procession to a second claret jug and recording a very different narrative. Just put your finger over the name Stenson on the leaderboard and see what story it tells now
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