Stenson's epic Open win filled with emotion, feelings

By Mercer BaggsJuly 17, 2016, 7:43 pm

TROON, Scotland – The final round of the 145th Open is better described in feelings than in words.

You must have watched it. It had to be seen, to be felt.

Those times where you leaned forward in anticipation and fell backwards in disbelief. When you placed your hands on your head in amazement. The monosyllabic yells and groans, as if you were there.

They’ll call this one epic. The Epic Open. Maybe they’ll come up with a better name, but not one more appropriate.

This one began with a remarkable 63 and concluded with the same. It developed into a two-man race, a pair of 40-somethings, both supreme talents but one with a resume far exceeding the other.

There was something lacking for Henrik Stenson and it was obvious. For him to obtain it, all he had to do was defeat a Hall of Fame player with five major titles in a head-to-head duel at Royal Troon. Simple enough.

Did you see what Phil Mickelson did first thing on Sunday? Confidently striding to the first tee, kissing his hand and touching the claret jug’s glass encasement. That felt … odd. Didn’t really work out for Yani Tseng when she tried something similar a few years ago. But this is Phil, so out-of-the-ordinary is quite normal.

What a beginning it was. Mickelson stuffing his approach shot and making birdie. Stenson three-putting for bogey. Two-shot swing in one hole and here we go! No time to settle in – you’ve had hours of lead-in coverage to get comfortable – the emotions are kicked into high gear at the start.

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This wasn’t just anyone turning a deficit into an advantage instantly. This was Phil Mickelson, the most entertaining, fan-appreciated player since Arnold Palmer. The who mattered as much as the what and the how this Sunday. Pick any other name off the big yellow scoreboard and it’s just not the same.

And that’s what made Stenson’s performance all the more incredible. He didn’t just beat anyone. He beat Phil Mickelson. And he beat Phil Mickelson at his best.

Mickelson hit 64 percent of his fairways in the final round. He hit 78 percent of his greens in regulation. He took only 28 putts. He shot 6-under 65 and didn’t make a bogey. And he lost. By three.

Stenson, in comparison, was beyond comparison. Fairways: 79 percent. Greens: 89 percent. Putts: 27. Birdies: 10. Bogeys: 2. Score: 63.

You wondered if Stenson would waver. Would the early gut-punch send him wobbling and into the recesses of his mind where he sometimes gets frustratingly lost, like a driver who keeps returning to a destination he doesn’t want to be.

He’s been here before. Not exactly here, but near enough. Stenson has had his chances to win major titles and, obviously, never has. Had.

His response, however, was immediate and positive. A birdie at the second to tie. A birdie at the third to take the lead. A birdie at the fourth to …

Oh, my!

Mickelson hit a long-iron to 8 feet and made eagle at the par-5 fourth. We’re tied again.

These four holes were the first three rounds of Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns. Without the cut over Hagler’s eye, Hearns’ baby deer legs and actual violence. That one never made it to a fourth. We still had 14 more to go here.

Both men parred No. 5. Both birdied the sixth, from inside 10 feet. Both men parred the seventh.

Finally, a bit of separation. Stenson birdied the par-3 eighth, the Postage Stamp, from 12 feet. It’s the littlest fella in the Open rota, but a hole that has caused players fits this week. Matt Kuchar made 7 there earlier in the day. But not Stenson. He made 2.

Both men turned in 4-under 32. Stenson maintained his one-stroke lead. He stood at 16 under, Mickelson at 15.

Something had to give. Someone had to make a mistake. This couldn’t continue.

It was going to happen on the back nine. You could feel it.

And then both men birdied the 10th. We were entering Jack Nicklaus-Tom Watson-Turnberry territory now.

“This was another duel like Jack and Tom,” three-time Open winner Nick Faldo would later say. “But they took it up a couple notches with the scoring; that was crazy, the quality of the golf and the quality of the putts, it was amazing.”

Mickelson would reference the Duel in the Sun in the media center Sunday night: "I certainly was thinking about that. I know that I wanted to be more of Tom in that case than Jack, but unfortunately - I understand how it feels. It's bittersweet, I guess."

There was a slip at the 11th. Stenson three-putted again for bogey. It was one of only two dropped shots, by either man, on the day.

For all of the scoring – 14 birdies and one eagle between them – there was one amazing par that gave Phil and his fans a jolt. On Saturday, Mickelson saved par at the 12th from the gorse. On Sunday, he twice played from the rough and had in excess of 20 feet to remain tied with Stenson.

“Did he do it again?” Gary Koch said on the TV call. “He did! Oh, man!”

That eruption. You could feel the energy of that crowd. Even watching alone, however many miles away, you were right there with them.

After a pair of pars on the 13th, there came a two-hole stretch that will forever define Stenson’s career. First he made an 18-foot birdie at the par-3 14th to regain a one-stroke lead. That was impressive. What he did next was legendary.

No way he makes this. It’s 50 feet, at least. Phil’s a good 30 feet away. Stenson pars, Mickelson pars, we go to the final three-hole stretch separated by one.

But damned if Stenson didn’t.

What that must have felt like. He hits the putt and starts walking. There’s a lot of distance for that ball to cover. And when it drops so, too, does Stenson’s right arm, a fist pump captured by cameras, the forever imprint of the 145th Open.

No words can do it just.

From there it seemed a formality. Up two with three to play. Not insurmountable, but, c’mon, have you been watching Stenson play? Mickelson was going to have to do something special. And, he nearly did.

Mickelson hit the green in two on the par-5 16th. Stenson hooked his approach shot into some nasty knee-high weeds. But Stenson did as Stenson was doing and got up and down for birdie. Mickelson had to convert his eagle. He couldn’t. You could sympathize as his ball trickled off the edge of the hole. The anguish in his 46-year-old face, empathic.

“I really thought that was going to go in,” Mickelson said. 

Stenson, 40, had a shot at becoming the first man to shoot 62 in a major, something Mickelson just missed in the first round. He needed to birdie his final two holes to do so, but clipped the left side of the hole on his 8-foot birdie effort at the par-3 17th.

A two-stroke differential at the last, there was still a chance for Mickelson. He would need a birdie and some help. But help? No, there was none when Phil went searching for history on Thursday and none when he endeavored for his sixth major title on Sunday.

Stenson’s tee shot, heading right for a bunker and a sure layup thereafter, stopped. It stopped.

Stenson knocked his approach shot onto the green and then, because what would be more appropriate, he made the 20-footer for birdie to finish at an Open-record 20 under par.

Mickelson, terribly disappointed, embraced his opponent. Congratulated him. He took the loss as he’s taken many major defeats before, with professionalism and respect.

“It's probably the best I've played and not won,” Mickelson said. “I think that's probably why it's disappointing in that I don't have a point where I can look back and say, I should have done that or had I only done this. I played a bogey-free round of 65 on the final round of a major, usually that's good enough to do it, and I got beat.”

Stenson had won the duel. He had his major. He had his wife to hug. He had his claret jug to kiss.

He had his place in history.

The normally charismatic, funny and fiery Swede was at a loss for words. If Mickelson was confused at how he could lose, Stenson was equally dazed by his accomplishment.

“It hasn't quite sunk in yet,” he said. “But I'm very happy. “

Sometimes feelings are more appropriate than words.

“I felt,” he said, “like this was going to be my turn.”

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

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CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)