TROON, Scotland – Turnberry had the bigger stars. Troon had the better golf.
That, along with 20 miles of Ayrshire coastline, might be all that separates two of the most compelling duels in 156 years of the British Open.
To compare anything with the 1977 British Open used to be sacrosanct. For the last four decades, the “Duel in the Sun” was the gold standard for head-to-head battles in a major championship, which are rare. Jack Nicklaus was the best in golf with 14 majors, nearing the end of his prime at 37. Tom Watson was the emerging star, 10 years younger, who won his second major earlier that year by holding off Nicklaus to win the Masters.
For two days, they put on a spectacular show.
Both shot 65 in the third round and shared the lead. Nicklaus finished with a 40-foot birdie putt for a 66 and a 269, a score that would have won any major in history to that point. That lasted only as long as it took Watson, who hit a 7-iron to about 2 feet on the final hole at Turnberry, to tap in his birdie for a 65 and a 268.
“This is what it’s all about, isn’t it,” Watson said to Nicklaus on the 16th hole when they were tied.
Turnberry entered the conversation Sunday at Royal Troon after four holes, when it was clear Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson had something special going.
Mickelson began with an approach that danced near the cup for a tap-in birdie. Stenson answered with two straight birdies from 15 feet to regain the lead. Stenson hit his approach on the par-5 fourth hole onto the green for a two-putt birdie. Mickelson carved a long iron into 8 feet for an eagle, and they were tied again.
It never stopped the rest of the way.
The greater the pressure, the better the golf until Stenson had broken one record, tied three others and won his first major.
Nicklaus doesn’t watch a lot of golf on television, but he considers himself fortunate to have watched “every second” of this one.
“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,” Nicklaus posted to social media. “Phil certainly has nothing to be ashamed of because he played wonderfully. … Henrik was simply terrific.”
And how did it measure up with his duel at Turnberry?
“Our final round was really good,” Nicklaus said, “but theirs was even better.”
On his own, Stenson could have claimed the greatest closing round in a major. He made four birdies over the last five holes for a 63, the same score Johnny Miller shot in the final round when he won the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
Miller came from six shots behind. Stenson played in the final group over the last two rounds.
Stenson played such a perfect round that he putted for birdie on every hole, three-putting from 80 feet just off the first green and three-putting from 40 feet on No. 11. Even so, he made 10 birdies amid relentless pressure of trying to win his first major.
“We’ll never see perfection on a links like that ever again in our lives,” Nick Faldo said. “There’s no way.”
Stenson, however, had company.
Without Mickelson there to push him, there’s no telling how this final round would be remembered. Mickelson made six birdies against no bogeys for a 65. Even when Stenson took a two-shot lead by rolling in a 50-foot birdie putt across the 15th green, Mickelson answered with a 3-wood up the narrow front in the green to 30 feet. His eagle putt just turned away at the right, and he ran out of holes.
Their better-ball score – remember, they were in the final group – would have been 59.
Their worst-ball score would have been 69.
Small wonder that Mickelson calls it the “best I’ve played and not won.”
Imagine if this had been Mickelson and any of the “Fab Four” a generation or so behind him. That’s what Turnberry had. Stenson is a popular champion, though his career has been slowed by two slumps, and the 40-year-old Swede had never won a major. That’s why the edge goes to Turnberry for star power.
For golf? Nothing touches Troon.
Imagine a perfection-seeker like Stenson trying to beat Mickelson at his best, making two bogeys and still shooting 63 with little margin for error.
Stenson and Mickelson were never separated by more than two shots for 40 consecutive holes until Stenson’s final birdie to win by three. They were in the final group for both days on the weekend. Over those 36 holes, they were tied after 15, Stenson led after 13 of them and Mickelson led after eight of them.
The golf was never better. The champion never more deserving.
And it will be a long time – just like after Turnberry – before this will be topped.
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