Looking back on epic Mickelson-Stenson duel
Nearly 12 months have passed, but the memories from last year’s duel at Royal Troon seem as fresh as ever.
Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson went shot-for-shot down the stretch at The 145th Open, combining shot-making and drama the likes of which the championship hadn’t seen since Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus walked off the green at Turnberry, arm in arm, 40 years ago.
Mickelson fired a final-round 65, beat 154 golfers and finished 11 shots clear of third-place J.B. Holmes. But his 17-under score was no match for Stenson, who tied a scoring record with a closing 63 and broke another record with his 20-under total.
“I don’t remember being in a match like that where we’ve separated ourselves from the field by so many strokes,” Mickelson said in the wake of his runner-up finish. “I don’t think that’s happened that I can remember.”
The result was an inverse of the finish at Muirfield in 2013, when Mickelson rallied for his first Open victory while Stenson finished runner-up. And while that championship was certainly memorable, it paled in comparison to the display the two men put on at Royal Troon, where each pushed the other to greater heights one birdie at a time.
“It makes it even more special to beat a competitor like Phil,” Stenson said. “He’s been one of the best to play the game, and certainly in the last 20 years. So to come out on top after such a fight with him over these four days, it makes it even more special.”
Often times the lore and magnitude of a major championship will grow as time passes. But last year’s Open proved to be the exception to that rule, as everyone realized from early in the final round that the battle brewing between Stenson and Mickelson would be one for the ages.
Stenson started the day with a one-shot lead over the southpaw, and he maintained that advantage at the halfway point after each player scorched the outward half in 4-under 32. Mickelson kept pace until the Swede rolled in birdies on Nos. 14 and 15, the latter of which came from 51 feet and elicited a rare emotional reaction from the player known as the “Ice Man.”
Another birdie on the 72nd hole gave Stenson a three-shot margin of victory. Frankly, it would have been a shock to see his round end with anything other than a birdie.
“It’s one of those things, it doesn’t really strike you when you’re in the middle of it,” Stenson said weeks later at the PGA Championship. “But afterwards, with the 63 and the 20 under and the way we played, we pushed each other to the limit, both of us, for 36 holes more or less, and traded punches and blows all the way around the golf course for two days. That certainly is what made us play so well. We both wanted it badly, and we performed so well because of each other.”
Given their remarkable performances at Troon, it’s somewhat surprising that neither Stenson nor Mickelson has lifted a trophy since they left Scotland. Stenson has had several chances, with four runner-up finishes highlighted by his silver medal performance in Rio. But this year he has also missed the cut in each of the first two majors and his T-10 finish at the BMW International Open was his first top-10 result since March.
Mickelson, meanwhile, has now gone four winless years since adding a fifth major title at Muirfield. At age 47 he still has plenty of game, but some of the attention thrown his way at Royal Birkdale will likely go to his new caddie.
Mickelson surprised the golf world last month when he announced an amicable split with caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay, and he’ll now have his brother, Tim, loop for the remainder of the season. Mickelson has cracked the top 30 in seven of nine starts since March, but the window to contend in majors is finite even for the best players in the game.
Will we see a repeat of last year’s drama this time around at Royal Birkdale? Probably not. Part of what made the Stenson-Mickelson duel so memorable in the moment was the realization that performances like that crop up once per generation, not once per year.
But it will still serve as a high-water mark for this year’s field to strive towards, each hoping to peak at the tournament’s crescendo as both combatants did so remarkably 12 months ago.
“It’s probably the best I’ve played and not won,” Mickelson said. “I played a bogey-free round of 65 on the final round of a major. Usually that’s good enough to do it, and I got beat. I got beat by 10 birdies.”