TROON, Scotland – Even in their wildly famed “Duel in the Sun” from a British Open 39 years ago and 24 miles down this coast, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson began that final round with trouble shouting from behind. Three shots back of their tie at the top stirred a 25-year-old Ben Crenshaw, then already a top-10 finisher in six major tournaments.
By contrast, with this British Open at Royal Troon Golf Club having distilled from 156 contestants to very apparently two, Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson would have to cup their ears to hear even a whisper from behind, especially above the winds off the Firth of Clyde. With Stenson at 12 under par and Mickelson at 11, there’s a gaping gap of five shots before one gets to Bill Haas, and six to Andrew Johnston, a hefty Englishman known as “Beef” and appearing in the third major tournament of his 26-year life.
Joked Haas: “I certainly don’t think Phil and Henrik Stenson are feeling the pressure tonight sleeping knowing that ‘Beef’ and Bill Haas are behind them.”
Approaching this potential Duel in the Normal Weather (gloom), then, someone asked Mickelson, rationally, whether he would perceive Sunday as match play.
“No, not at all, no,” he said. “I don’t see that.”
Someone asked Stenson whether the round together on Saturday, in which Stenson bobbed ahead of Mickelson by one after trailing by one, felt like match play.
“It was certainly kind of a match-play scenario out there,” he said.
Someone asked Rory McIlroy, one of the masses way behind (12 behind Stenson), how he would approach Sunday.
“It looks like, depending on what happens on the back nine [Saturday], Henrik and Phil are sort of playing their own tournament right now,” he said.
They were, at least, on Saturday’s back nine, propelling them to a Sunday on which Mickelson, 46, will seek a sixth major title, while Stenson, 40, will seek a first after seven top-five finishes, great-big bags of prize money and 14 wins on the two big continental tours.
On Saturday they left greens seven times tied, six times with Mickelson ahead by one, four times with Stenson ahead by one and once with Mickelson ahead by two. On both Nos. 14 and 17, a two-shot swing swung in Stenson’s favor, first to tie things when Mickelson’s three-foot par putt curled around the left edge of the cup and misbehaved, and then to give Stenson a lead when Mickelson’s bid to the par-3 No. 17 sagged off left, shy of the green.
On that, he offered a detailed technical explanation, including that he “lunged forward” owing to “a tendency to do that,” wherein his “head from the top just moves forward” and he becomes “more vertical on the plane” and “can’t match up my release and so forth.”
Then he said, “So it’s just technically I’m giving you a bunch of stuff. It was an awful swing.”
He did summarize: “I was off today. I didn’t have my best stuff. . . . I was a little bit jumpy and my rhythm wasn’t very good today.”
Mickelson did shoot 70, his third straight round under par 71, and he did provide a Mickelson masterpiece on No. 12, rectifying a wayward tee shot by punching out from just in front of the abominable gorse. He seemed eager to get to coach Andrew Getson in a bid to restore his swing to its fineness of Thursday, when he shot 63.
Reminded, meanwhile, that he has shot the sinister back nine under par this week, Stenson said, “Thank you for reminding me of that because I didn’t have a clue.” He did say, “When I’m playing well, I’m pretty solid with long irons, and there’s a lot of long irons coming home.”
“Duel in the Gloom,” if it comes to that – forecasts called for a sun taking a peek, if nothing else – does lack the gravitas of “Duel in the Sun,” if only because most duels would: Nicklaus, then 37, had 14 major titles, and Watson, then 27, had two already. Yet there will be the backdrop of the 2013 Open at Muirfield, when Stenson began the day in fifth and shot 70 to finish second, while Mickelson began the day tied for ninth and shot 66 to win with arguably one of the greatest rounds in the big history of the sport.
For Mickelson, his first title of any kind since then would mean a lot; for Stenson, his first major title would mean perhaps more, the first by any male from Sweden.
“Yeah, thoughts of outcome is never really helping you,” Stenson said. “I know what I would like to see tomorrow. There’s no question about it. But in a way I’ve got a second and two thirds at the Open, so it’s not like I’m looking to pick up any more of those finishes. There’s only one thing that matters tomorrow. I know he’s not going to back down, and I’m certainly going to try to not back down either. . . .
“Yeah, it would be massive. This is the one thing I’m looking for. It would be the icing on the cake. But at the same time, I’ve worked hard, I’ve put myself in a great spot. But still it’s whatever you want to throw the odds, but if I give myself a 50-50, it might happen, it might not happen. The sun will come up on Monday hopefully, anyway.”
Then, with just a hint of a pause, he deadpanned, “Maybe not in Scotland, but in other parts of the world.”