Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Final Round for the Ages at the British Open

I was fortunate to watch every second of today’s final round of the Open Championship, and I thought it was fantastic. Phil Mickelson played one of the best rounds I have ever seen played in the Open and Henrik Stenson just played better—he played one of the greatest rounds I have ever seen. Phil certainly has nothing to be ashamed of because he played wonderfully. Henrik played well from beginning to end. He drove the ball well; his iron game was great; his short game was wonderful; and his putting was great. Henrik was simply terrific. To win your first major championship is something special in and of itself, but to do it in the fashion Henrik did it in, makes for something very special and incredibly memorable. I'm proud of and happy for Henrik. Some in the media have already tried to compare today’s final round to 1977 at Turnberry, with Tom Watson and me in what they called the “duel in the sun.” I thought we played great and had a wonderful match. On that day, Tom got me, 65-66. Our final round was really good, but theirs was even better. What a great match today.
                                                                                    ~ Jack Nicklaus

[ed. What a golfing clinic (and total nail-biter)! Really exceptional golf at the highest level. Congratulations to both Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson. See also: Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson deliver 'the greatest Open ever' and Instant Classic.]

TROON, Scotland — This was an arm wrestle, a free-throw shooting contest, a 50-yard dash. It was a tug of war, a sprint to the top of the hill, a game of rock-paper-scissors.

It was, really, a match race: a pair of thoroughbreds, separated from the field and cut loose from the gate, going stride for stride around the track with no need to look back. All that mattered was keeping one nose in front.

One hundred and fifty-six players began the British Open, and 81 played the weekend. There were 173,000 fans who passed through the gates at Royal Troon during the past week, and in the end, the spotlight illuminated just two men. There was no one in front, no one close behind, no one else in the frame. They were alone.

Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson played together on Saturday and then again on Sunday, and they were, quite simply, superior. Mickelson and Stenson were not so much in a different class from everyone else as they were in a completely different school district. Consider this: Mickelson made two birdies and an eagle in his first six holes on Sunday, made four bogeys in the entire tournament, shot 70-65 over his final two rounds and still — somehow — lost by three strokes as Stenson went 68-63 to finish at 20 under par. J. B. Holmes was the next closest competitor, 11 shots behind Mickelson or, put another way, the same distance back of second place that Jim Herman, who tied for 43rd, was of third.

The separation was so complete that at various points during Sunday’s round, Mickelson found himself thinking of the famous 1977 British Open, in which Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, miles adrift of anyone else on the leader board, waged a similar weekend sword fight just down the road from here at Turnberry.

Mickelson was certainly not the only one. The so-called Duel in the Sun is famous in golf lore, one of the sport’s greatest sequences. It involved Nicklaus shooting 65-66 in his final two rounds, Watson shooting 65-65, and nearly four decades later, it led to perhaps the only instance in memory in which a professional golfer longed, more than anything, not to resemble the Golden Bear.

“I know that I wanted to be more of Tom in that case than Jack, but unfortunately,” Mickelson said, his voice trailing off. He hesitated. “It’s bittersweet, I guess.”

Golf rarely delivers such theater, but the scattered instances of showdowns like these always linger in a special area of the sport’s institutional memory. Sunday charges, such as Nicklaus’s at Augusta in 1986 or Mickelson’s in 2013 at Muirfield, are thrilling, to be sure, but there is nothing quite like the clarity of a true one-on-one. (...)

At Troon, there was no need to look at the leaderboards. As Rory McIlroy, the four-time major champion and the former No. 1 golfer in the world, said after shooting a final-round 67 to finish tied for fifth: “Look what those guys have done. There’s no chance of me getting to that score.” By the middle of the front nine, when the leaders were already seven shots clear, even Mickelson — always wary of the unexpected — could acknowledge the anomaly here.

“By the sixth hole, it was pretty obvious it was going to be just us,” he said.

It was. And in that sense, some golf fans may be tempted to compare this day to 2000, when Tiger Woods and the largely anonymous (both before and since) Bob May ran away from the field on the back nine on Sunday at the P.G.A. Championship while waging a battle full of birdies that, ultimately, Woods won in a playoff.

But this day was different. Woods and May at Valhalla will always be remembered, if only because of how Woods chased one of his putts all the way to the hole. Yet the quality of golf on display here Sunday was perhaps even more sensational, particularly in light of the circumstances.

by Sam Borden, NY Times  | Read more:
Image: Facundo Arrizabalaga/European Pressphoto Agency