TROON, Scotland – Maybe the otherworldly quality of Sunday at Royal Troon Golf Club registered best in the countenance of the “loser.” The “loser” walked off the back of No. 18, and some fans looked down sideways from the grandstand and shouted hosannas – “Well-played, Phil!” – so he looked up toward them and smiled. He looked gracious but also dazed.
Phil Mickelson hopped up the steps two at a time to the scorer’s trailer, where he would sign for his dreamy 65. Not a single bogey pockmarked that card. An eagle and four birdies shone from it. Hundreds of golfers have awakened on hundreds of major Sunday mornings knowing just such a card will bring them claret jugs, green jackets or glorious whatnot.
Yet the card made him the “loser,” while absolutely not a loser.
Henrik Stenson, a top-10 mainstay who had tried 41 previous majors by his age of 40, had a strong feeling this 145th British Open was “my turn” at a first major title, and it’s possible nobody ever took his turn more loftily. In ransacking the record books, he not only gave company to Johnny Miller’s lonely, revered, final-round 63 from the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, Pa., long the best score in a closing-round major cauldron. Stenson also gave compliment to Mickelson, who in turn gave compliment to Stenson, on a Sunday when two players floated remarkably above the other 79.
“I played what I feel was well enough to win this championship by a number of strokes, and yet I got beat by three shots,” said Mickelson, who finished at 17 under par.
“I knew he wasn’t going to back down in any way, and in a way that makes it easier for myself,” Stenson said.
“It’s probably the best I’ve played and not won,” Mickelson said.
Stenson soon followed Mickelson into that trailer to sign something else. It had two bogeys on it, but it had an inconceivable 10 birdies from an alleged tempest of a course, even as the weather did settle across the afternoon. It was the second 63 in a final round of any of the 438 majors played since 1860. It gave Stenson a closing score of 264, the lowest ever in a major. It put him at 20 under par, matching Jason Day’s record from the 2015 PGA Championship, and surpassing Tiger Woods’s Open record from 2000 at St. Andrews.
It steered Sweden’s first men’s golf major to a guy born into a non-golfing family in Gothenburg, one who played only soccer and badminton until age 11, when a neighbor kid invited him to a driving range. It directed a claret jug to Stenson even on a day when the tweet of the day went perhaps to an Australian player on the European Tour, Marcus Fraser: “Just give them a Jug each.”
They don’t do that, an obvious realization that did need to set in again as their shared round began and then built. Someone will not win this. When the two produced two of only six birdies all day on No. 10, they had played 10 holes with one bogey (Stenson’s, on No. 1) and 19 of 20 greens in regulation, combined. The Open’s radio broadcasters fretted about running out of superlatives and summoned terminology such as “gladiatorial.”
Around they went, through the front nine where the wind off the Firth of Clyde blew in their faces and rippled their trousers. They passed through No. 8, the famed Postage Stamp, where Stenson showed prime concentration with a 15-foot birdie while a massive jet took off just overhead from nearby Prestwick Airport. They went around the turn where the ScotRail trains rumbled by, and on through No. 12 where some green-side singers might have been tipsy.
The expressionless Swede and the smiling Californian kept playing near-spotless golf at their merciless sport. Neither ever missed grotesquely; neither saw harsh peril; the nefarious gorse all around never got a chance to co-star. Mickelson made a few patented escapes but many more common-sense shots.
By the back nine, the sky finished its two-day brood and calmed.
When they reached No. 14, they remained tied at 16 under par, 10 shots ahead of anybody else, a margin that would reach 11 from third place to Mickelson, 14 to Stenson. Said Mickelson, the 46-year-old with the 26-season career and five major titles, “I don’t remember being in a match like that where we’ve separated ourselves from the field by so many strokes.”
At the par-3 14, Stenson inched away. He stood with an 18-foot birdie putt from the left side of the green and, he said, “I just thought, ‘How many chances coming in here am I going to have to try to pull away?'” He drained that putt. “That stung,” Mickelson said.
“But the one on 15 was . . .” His words trailed off. It stung more.
From the right fringe, Stenson’s 51-foot roll turned into a rollick, then a roar as it took its final rotation and plunked down. Stenson had a two-shot lead and his first thorough fist-pump.
From there, the only thick drama would come on par-5 No. 16, where Mickelson missed an eagle by an inch, and Stenson used a world-class pitch from the weeds on the left of the green, past the cup to five feet. Standing over that birdie putt to match Mickelson’s birdie, he felt the most pressure all day.
Yet as the ball started rolling, Stenson started walking, certain of accuracy. “It’s not something you want to run around and shout,” he said, “but I felt like this was going to be my turn. I knew I was going to have to battle back if it wasn’t, but I think that was the extra self-belief that made me go all the way this week.”
By the time he spoke that, he was “running on adrenaline,” he said. The claret jug, a star in his daydreams pretty much since that age of 11, rested before him. He had beaten “one of the best to play the game,” he said, and had done so when one of the best shot 65. It had seemed almost an entire day of adrenaline, right down to the last putt on No. 18, a 30-footer he didn’t need.
It dropped, of course.