After the first two major championships of the season were won by first time major winners, The 2016 Open Championship continued the trend. Henrik Stenson, became the latest to add his name to the historic major championship club with his victory this past weekend at Royal Troon. Stenson, who has long been a part of another club, the “most talented to never win a major club,” finally broke through to secure his first major championship on Sunday. And it did not come easy.
Heading into the final round on Sunday, Stenson was paired with his longtime friend Phil Mickelson in the last group. Partially due to some spectacular golf the first three days and partially due to being on the favorable side of the draw, Stenson (-12) and Mickelson (-11) had separated themselves from the field prior to even hitting their first tee shots of the final round. They began the day well clear of Bill Haas (-6), who was in third place. This provided for an opportunity golf fans do not get to see very often in any tournament, let alone a major championship: a de facto two man match play. And the theater did not disappoint.
The fireworks began immediately with a two shot swing as Stenson struggled out of the gate bogeying No. 1, while Mickelson birdied to take the lead. Stenson would quickly recover however, as he went on to birdie five of the next seven holes and make the turn to the much more challenging back nine at 16 under par. Given the magnitude of the moment coupled with the spectacular play of Stenson many other players would have folded, but not Mickelson. Lefty continued to apply pressure with an eagle on the fourth hole followed by another birdie at the sixth. As he made the turn, Mickelson managed to keep pace with Stenson and find himself just one shot back heading into the final nine holes.
All week the back nine played substantially harder than the front nine. To illustrate this consider this stat: coming into Sunday’s final round at Troon over the last two Opens to be contested there the front nine played (-28) while the back nine played a whopping (+2,131). The way the wind generally blows off of Scotland’s Firth of Clyde makes the entire final nine holes play directly back into it, giving even the best players in the world fits. However, on Sunday Stenson and Mickelson were unfazed. The drama between the two continued as they went consistently went shot for shot and made it look effortless. After both birdieing No. 10, Stenson gave one back on No. 11, making the match effectively all-square with seven holes to play. Then Stenson went off.
Henrik went on to birdie 14, 15, and 16 with the most notable one coming at the extremely challenging 502 yard par 4 15th. Not known to be the game’s greatest putter, Stenson found himself just on the fringe to the right of the green when he rolled in a 45+ foot putt for his birdie, igniting both he and the thousands of spectators while seemingly demoralizing Mickelson. It was truly the moment which all but sealed the 40 year old Swede’s first major championship and he knew it as he celebrated with an invigorating fist pump. Phil would not go away quietly though and almost made some fireworks of his own on the par 5 16th with a putt for eagle that fell off line right at the last second to miss the cup. After both making par at the 17th, Stenson stood on the 18th tee with a two shot advantage. Rather than take the conservative route, arguably the best ball striker in the world pulled out his favorite club, his three wood, and pounded a ball down the fairway nearly falling into a pot bunker. Yet it didn’t because this was Henrik Stenson’s day. This was his time after so many close calls in majors past. Three years ago at The Open Stenson finished second to who? You guessed it, Phil Mickelson. But on Sunday the roles were reversed.
As Stenson approached the 18th green on the 72nd hole he was greeted with the applause of 8,000 cheering fans, all extremely appreciative of the mastery they witnessed out of both he and Mickelson. Mickelson went on to make par for a final round 65, and with his birdie at 18 Stenson tied Johnny Miller’s record for the lowest final round in a major championship with a 63. After Stenson shared an emotional moment with his caddy, Gareth Lord, Mickelson and he embraced, undoubtedly congratulating each other on two sensational rounds of golf. It’s a shame there had to be a loser because on Sunday at Troon, there wasn’t one. There was just one winner and that was Henrik Stenson. Not only did Stenson tie Miller’s final round record but he also set the record for the lowest aggregate strokes in a major with 264 and became the first Swedish male golfer to capture a major championship. While it is the title of The Open’s winner every year, Champion Golfer of the Year could not be more appropriate this year. Welcome to the major championship club, Henrik.