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For nearly four decades, “The Duel in the Sun” endured as golf’s greatest head-to-head major battle.
Now, it has competition.
Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus starred in the 1977 Open Championship at Turnberry. Watson birdied four of his last six holes to shoot 130 on the weekend (65-65). Nicklaus was one shot higher. The rest of the field was 10 shots behind. As legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins wrote that day: “Better than any golf – ever.”
But now even the protagonists that day admit that it is no longer true. A proper moniker surely will emerge in time – The Tussle at Troon! – but Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson put on a performance for the ages at The Open.
Mickelson had captivated fans long before the Sunday shootout at Royal Troon. In the opening round, the 46-year-old, rejuvenated after three years of mediocre results, made a spirited run at the single-round scoring record at a major. On the final green, his 18-footer tracked toward the hole but somehow caught the lip and spun out. The heartbreaking miss sent his longtime caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, tumbling to the ground.
Stenson was five shots worse that day, but he cut into the deficit with a Friday 65. Another 68 on Saturday gave him the outright lead, at 12 under par, one clear of Mickelson. It was already a two-man race; Bill Haas was a distant third, six shots behind.
Oddly enough, the most memorable final round in decades began with a bogey, as Stenson three-putted from the front edge. Mickelson brushed in a short birdie, and just like that, a two-shot swing.
Over the next four hours, they would combine for a dizzying 13 birdies, an eagle and a single bogey. They were tied with five holes to go, until Stenson, known more for clinical ball-striking than sublime putting, rolled in an 18-footer and a 50-footer on consecutive holes.
Mickelson’s last chance came on 16, when his eagle putt narrowly missed. Putting an exclamation point on his day, and his week, Stenson drained a 20-footer on 18 that gave him a 63, a three-shot victory and a 20-under 264 total, the lowest 72-hole score in major history.
The next closest competitor was J.B. Holmes, who was 11 shots back of Mickelson.
“Those guys are playing a different golf course than everyone else,” Holmes said afterward.
It was a deeply satisfying victory for Stenson, who twice has climbed out of the professional abyss to reach the top 5 in the world rankings. But for Mickelson, it was another crushing blow in a career full of them. It was his 11th runner-up in a major, but this one stung, perhaps more than any other, after he played near-flawless golf and still lost.
Even before the trophy presentation, there was a rush to place the epic final round in the proper historical context, to compare it to the legendary “Duel in the Sun.”
As usual, Nicklaus had the final word.
“Our final round was really good,” he said, “but theirs was even better. What a great match today.”
July 17: Duel for the ages: Stenson (63) beats Mickelson (65)
July 17: Stenson claims maiden major
July 17: Mickelson short of major glory again
July 17: Chamblee: Henrik v. Phil was like 'Godfather II'
July 17: Duel debate: Jack vs. Tom or Phil vs. Henrik?