Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 17, 2016

Henrik And Phil Triumph Over Royal Troon

What is the hallmark of greatness in sports? What is the essential characteristic that defines the highest order of achievement in our games? For an entire generation of golf fans, the answer to those questions is the single word “youth.” These are the fans first drawn to the game by the play of Tiger Woods, whose coming out party was his twelve shot victory at the 1997 Masters at the age of 21. Woods had already recorded three wins in fourteen events since turning pro the previous September; but that year’s Masters was his first appearance in a major as a professional. By romping over the field and becoming the youngest winner in the tournament’s history, Woods served notice that a new era had begun.

Woods is 40 now. He hasn’t won since 2013, played a competitive round in almost a year, and has given no clear indication as to when he may do so again.  While plenty of fans who pine for his return, a wider base understand that the game is moving on. As they look to turn the page those fans have found the task made easier by the plethora of enormously talented young players, many of whom were inspired as children by the twenty-something Woods.

As those players have taken center stage the spotlight has been constantly moving. So Rory McIlroy went from being the next Tiger as a 22-year old U.S. Open champion in 2011 to one-half of the Big Two when Jordan Spieth won back-to-back majors last summer before his 22nd birthday. Then Jason Day flirted with major wins while not yet 25 before winning last year’s PGA Championship and later ascending to the top of the world rankings at the age of 27; thus creating a new Big Three reminiscent of the long-ago days of Palmer, Nicklaus and Player. In the midst of all that Rickie Fowler looked like he might convert the hype that accompanied his professional debut as a 20-year old into reality half a dozen years later. Big Four anyone? As quickly as Fowler regressed Dustin Johnson broke through with his first major last month. A different Big Four, perhaps?

The fact that of the entire crew Johnson, who just turned 32, is the only one in his thirties has simply reinforced the belief among pundits and fans that the overriding narrative of the game is the power of youth. Nor is that storyline limited to the men’s game. The top two women in the Rolex Rankings, Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson, are both teenagers. Lexi Thompson, the top American at number four, turned 21 in February.

But as has been noted more than once on these pages, golf is a game for life; and one in which mental focus is at least as important as physical ability. Given those variables it yields to overly simple narratives grudgingly. That has certainly been the case at the oldest major of them all, the Open Championship. In 2009 60-year old Tom Watson came within a missed par putt at the 72nd hole from becoming the oldest winner in major tournament history. Two years later 42-year old Englishman Darren Clarke was the wildly popular winner at Royal St. George’s. He was followed as the holder of the Claret Jug by Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. Both were 43 at the time of their victories.

Still narratives have their own power, so it was a surprise to many fans when Mickelson, now 46, led after one round of this year’s Open Championship by firing a course record 63 at Royal Troon on Thursday. He missed a birdie putt by inches on the 18th green that would have made him the first golfer to shoot 62 in any round of any major. Five shots adrift of Mickelson, tied for twelfth after an opening 68, was 40-year old Henrik Stenson of Sweden.

On Friday Mickelson returned a two-under par 69, and Stenson improved upon his opening effort by three shots. That left the former in first place at 10-under par, with the latter just one stroke behind. Youth would not be served at this Open. Spieth barely made the cut, and he, Day and Fowler all finished the tournament over par. McIlroy and Johnson were both 2-under at the midway point, but that was eight shots behind Mickelson. In the end, both would officially record top-ten finishes. But in fifth place McIlroy was sixteen shots behind the winning score, and in a tie for ninth Johnson was two strokes further adrift.

Not since 1977, when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson staged their famous “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry have golf fans seen something akin to what they saw this weekend. Paired together for the final two rounds, Stenson and Mickelson dueled as if in match play for the entire final 36 holes, as the rest of the field fell away. On Saturday Stenson turned the one stroke midway deficit into a one stroke advantage, besting Mickelson’s fine 70 with a better 68. Then on Sunday Mickelson birdied the opening hole while Stenson took three putts to get down from just off the green, moving the American back in front. The Swede rebounded with an immediate birdie to again forge a tie. From there it was parry and thrust, with both going out in 4-under 32, leaving Stenson one ahead just as the day had started. He bogeyed the 11th to create one final tie.

Over the final seven holes, the hardest part of the golf course, Mickelson added one more birdie and ended with an outstanding 65, the second best round of the day.  But Stenson ran off four birdies, including three in a row, to post a final 63, good for a three shot victory. For the winner it was validation at age 40, a first major in a career that has included PGA Tour wins at the Players Championship, the Tour Championship and a WGC event, plus nine other European Tour victories and three appearances on the European Ryder Cup team. In his triumph Stenson’s final 63 set a record for the lowest final round by an Open champion, his 20-under finish tied the record for lowest total in relation to par at a major, and his 264 set a new mark for the lowest aggregate score at a major.

For Mickelson it was one more bit of major heartbreak, an eleventh runner-up finish to go with five titles at his sport’s signature events. But golf is an individual sport, and given how well he played for four days, how bad should Mickelson feel at having been outdistanced by just one other competitor in the entire field while finishing eleven shots clear of the golfer in third place? Which returns us to the initial query. What is the hallmark of greatness in golf? It can be something simple, but perhaps not something as overly general as “youth.” Every year at the Open, greatness is described in five simple words – champion golfer of the year. It was the title won by Henrik Stenson on Sunday, after he and Phil Mickelson, two players in their forties, put on a weekend display for the ages. How great is that?

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Responses

  1. Really NIce!Sent from my Veriz


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