Listen to Henrik Stenson’s appearance on The Open Podcasts here.
When Henrik Stenson arrived at The 145th Open Championship, nobody could have foreseen what the affable Swede was set to produce in golf’s original major.
At the least, the omens were mixed. Stenson came into Royal Troon feeling comfortable, but the South Ayrshire course was still the only Open venue the Swede had not experienced.
“I had actually played all the other Open Championship venues, when we came to Troon in 2016 that was the only one I had not played any golf at," Stenson said speaking on The Open Podcasts.
“So I flew out about a week before the Championship and I had my caddie and coach with me, and I went out and walked the golf course on the Sunday night. Then on the Monday I played it in pretty miserable conditions, but I got a good look.”
Stenson also had a familiar feeling with his game that was not overly special, but had in the past produced good results.
“I just felt pretty happy with everything in terms of my game," Stenson said. “I didn’t feel fantastic, but most parts felt under control and I think looking back at some of my wins that’s kind of been the feeling and mindset I’ve had.”
As well as control, Stenson was confident in his methods of preparation. Unlike his younger self, he knew how to handle major championship weeks, and The Open in particular.
“Conserving a lot of energy in the early part of the week (is key)," he explained. "I think a lot of young players who are there for six or seven hours on the golf course and beating balls on the range, they’re exhausted come Thursday. And even if you’re not exhausted by Thursday, you’re exhausted come Saturday. So energy conservation is certainly a big part of it.”
The Swede felt rested and ready to play. Starting with a 68 in the first round, he trailed a rampant Phil Mickelson by five shots after the American agonisingly missed out on a record-breaking 62, a birdie putt at the last just failing to drop.
There was little indication the course would yield more low scoring, particularly when the Friday conditions arrived.
“It was really on the Friday that I put a really good score in," Stenson added. "I shot 65 on the Friday. The afternoon guys certainly had it a lot tougher, but it was still not to be neglected the conditions that we played in partly on the Friday, even though I played earlier and Phil also played earlier.”
“We kind of posted our scores and then we went home and it was brutal in the afternoon that Friday. As we know what makes The Open as well is you have the weather on the links and the luck of the draw can play a big part.”
Stenson and Mickelson benefited from the better side of the draw, but both took full advantage and played superb golf over the two days. The best, however, was still yet to come.
“After two days I was sitting one behind Phil going into Saturday, and there were still quite a few players just lined up behind us. But once we entered the back nine on Saturday I felt like it was match play with Phil battling it out for position coming into Sunday," continued Stenson. "I managed to make a couple birdies on the par threes, 14 and 17, to be one ahead going into Sunday’s round.”
The nip and tuck nature of the contest carried over from Saturday into what would be an historic final round on Sunday.
“I had actually played all the other Open Championship venues, when we came to Troon in 2016 it was the only one I had not played any golf at.” Henrik Stenson
Mickelson started fast with a tap-in birdie on the first hole, which Stenson bogeyed to herald an instant change of leader.
The switch at the top was short-lived. Stenson bounced back immediately with birdies on the second and third holes, before setting up a short chance for another on the par-5 fourth hole.
Mickelson, not to be outdone, eagled the fourth and jumped back into a share of the lead alongside Stenson, who birdied. The sense of anticipation amongst the crowd was immense.
The pair shared pars on the par-3 fifth hole before both birdieing the sixth and taking par at the seventh. As the two Ryder Cup stalwarts engaged in this most captivating of contests, comparisons were already being drawn with the great Duel in the Sun of 1977.
“We were trading blows, trading birdies, and just pulling away from the field," Stenson said. The closest challengers, Andrew Johnston and JB Holmes, were now an astonishing eight shots behind the two leaders.
Yet standing on the tee of the famed Postage Stamp, more drama was set to unfold. Two superb shots set up birdie chances, with Stenson set to putt first.
“I’ve always been a good match player and I think that simplifies it for me," he said. "I’ve only got one guy I need to try and stay ahead of, or beat. If he makes four I need to make three, if he makes three I need to try and make two.”
Stenson duly obliged, with a stunning birdie on the shortest hole in Open Championship golf. Mickelson could only make par and, after a classic matchplay moment, Stenson took a one-shot lead.
A pair of pars followed on the ninth hole, and the two titans had both gone out in 31 strokes.
Clearly not sated, both players remarkably birdied the fiendish par-4 10th. Not a single player in the previous eight groups had picked up a shot on the hole.
“I’d never been in a situation like that in a major championship," Stenson said. “We left everyone else miles behind, it was just match play between Phil and myself.”
A rare blip on one of the hardest holes in golf, the railway-lined 11th, saw Stenson fall back alongside Mickelson. There was still nothing to split the two players who had been in competition since Friday.
Mickelson produced an astonishing up-and-down on the 12th hole to stay tied and, standing on the 14th tee, the pair were locked at 16 under par.
It was then on the 14th hole that Stenson took charge. Just as he had done on the previous day, he birdied the par 3, holing a 15-foot putt to elicit a thunderous roar.
Now with the lead, Stenson had the higher ground. The killer blow came on the 15th, as the 40-year-old holed a monster putt from off the green to take a two-shot lead over his rival.
After trading birdies and pars with Mickelson on the 16th and 17th respectively, Stenson was still two clear as he reached the last.
“In The Open Championship history and in other big events we’ve seen what can happen when players let their concentration fall at the wrong time, and I was certainly determined not to let that be the case for me," Stenson said.
Stenson did not lose concentration at all, and instead holed one last iconic putt to shatter records and cap off one of the greatest rounds ever played in golf’s original major.
His final round of 63 matched the lowest round in a major at the time, while his aggregate scores of 264 strokes and 20 under par are still tied for the best in major championship history.
Having started the final round one shot off the lead, Mickelson had shot a bogey-free 65. In almost all circumstances in a major, that would have been more than enough to win. On this occasion, he finished three shots behind.
Stenson’s brilliance will forever be etched in history, with the valiance of his rival Mickelson never to be forgotten. If The 145th Open were to be Stenson’s lone major championship, his heart would be full.
“If I were to choose one, I would pick The Open," Stenson said. “It’s the one closest to my heart, being European and being the first championship I followed on television as a kid. I got the one that I wanted. If there’s no other ones to be had, I got the one that was number one on my list.”
To listen to the full podcast with Henrik Stenson, visit TheOpen.com/Podcasts, or listen and subscribe on your preferred podcast provider. To watch more Official Films and see The Open Archive, visit TheOpen.com/Video