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Dazzling Henrik Stenson-Phil Mickelson Duel at British Open an Instant Classic

Steve Elling@@EllingYellingSpecial to Bleacher ReportJuly 17, 2016

TROON, SCOTLAND - JULY 17:  Henrik Stenson of Sweden celebrates victory on the 18th green with Phil Mickelson of the United States after the final round on day four of the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon on July 17, 2016 in Troon, Scotland. Henrik Stenson of Sweden finished 20 under for the tournament to claim the Open Championship.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Unlike everything else that transpired between Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson on Sunday at Royal Troon, hardly anybody noticed a certain fleeting moment early in the round.

As fans scrambled for position and announcers began dusting off superlatives that have seldom been used in golf, the pair walked off the fourth tee box at the 145th Open Championship as Stenson absent-mindedly pitched a banana peel into the knee-high fescue.

Birdies littered his wake, too.

In the most spectacular final-round duel in modern major championship history, Stenson finished 20 under to become the first Swedish male to win a major championship. He amassed 10 birdies, obliterated a handful of notable Grand Slam records and closed with an almost indescribable 63. 

Stenson, 40, didn’t have much choice. 

Even with his record-torching pyrotechnics, he barely outlasted Mickelson, a five-time major winner who nearly kept pace and finished three shots back. Indeed, in his 25th season as a pro, Mickelson posted the lowest round of his majors career and somehow got whipped.

TROON, SCOTLAND - JULY 17:  Henrik Stenson of Sweden celebrates victory as he poses with the Claret Jug on the the 18th green after the final round on day four of the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon on July 17, 2016 in Troon, Scotland. Henrik Stens
Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
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“I threw as much at him as I could, and he didn’t make any mistakes,” Mickelson, who edged Stenson by three shots at the same event three years earlier, told NBC Sports. “Ten birdies is just incredible play.” 

Incomprehensible is more like it—in stereo.

Just down the coast from where golf gods Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson staged what, by acclamation, has been characterized as the greatest two-man battle in the modern majors at the 1977 Open at Turnberry, the American and the Swede likewise lapped the field. 

The Watson-Nicklaus battle was called the Duel in the Sun, which was so memorable that it generated a book

On Sunday, J.B. Holmes finished 11 shots behind Mickelson, the greatest gap between second and third in majors history, and that was one of many reasons the golf world went searching for a moniker to memorialize this unforgettable tournament. 

One press wag dubbed the two-man runaway “High Troon.” 

It wasn’t Gary Cooper against the bad guys, though. Given their nationalities and otherworldly play, it felt more like Thor against Captain America. It’s no stretch to say that Stenson’s crisp ball-striking sounded like a comic book lightning bolt.

Tied with five holes left to play, Stenson collected four birdies on the way to the clubhouse, and the 46-year-old Mickelson was only able to watch in awe at the clinic staged before him.

“I felt like it was my time,” Stenson said on the NBC broadcast. “I believed it was my time, and I managed to pull through and have a great finish. It was tough, and I knew it was gonna be tough. He never backs down, and it was a battle until the end.

“In a way, it makes it easier when you are up against someone like Phil, and you know he’s not going to back down and is going to keep trying to make birdies on every hole. So I tried to do the same.”

Roger that. They combined for 14 birdies and an eagle. Their jaw-dropping best-ball score? Here’s the math, courtesy of Jordan Spieth:

Jordan Spieth @JordanSpieth

A four-ball score of 57

It had all the vestiges of a memorable duel from the opening moments. When Mickelson almost holed a difficult flop shot from off the second green, Stenson shot him a memorable grin. Game on. 

A heartbeat later, on the same green, Stenson jarred a 12-footer for a birdie to reclaim a share of the lead at 12 under. On the banks of the Irish Sea, what followed wasn’t so much ebb and flow, but a two-man tsunami.

For reference, Mickelson’s 65 was two shots better than the next-best score of the day, posted by Rory McIlroy. It turned into a match-play duel. 

Scratch that: More like matchless play.

Considering that Stenson became only the eighth player in history to claim his first major after age 40 and that Mickelson is six years his senior, they issued a blanket beatdown of previously dominant players such as Jason Day, Spieth and McIlroy, who never remotely contended. Mind you, Stenson withdrew from the U.S. Open last month, citing neck and knee issues, and Mickelson’s arthritis woes have been well-chronicled. 

This time, however, it was the Ibuprofen Open for everybody else.

Another sign it might be a Sunday for the ages came when the pair played the sixth hole. After Mickelson’s approach came to rest about eight feet from the flag, Stenson asked him to mark the ball—even though he was still 75 yards out, in the fairway. The Swede stoically stuck his shot to four feet, and both birdied the hole.

They shot a best-ball 29 on the front side.  

It was hard to chart the momentum switches. Earlier, the sun broke through just as Mickelson, a native San Diegan, walked onto the first tee, and it looked like Lefty might rule the day—he immediately recaptured the lead as Stenson made a nervous bogey. But Stenson reeled off three straight birdies on Nos. 2-4.

They traded sensory-slapping blows for four hours.

The Open @TheOpen

Anything you can do...#TheOpen https://t.co/8HMLZSu8SF

Finally, as they made it into the middle of the back nine, Stenson began to assert himself. He rolled in an 18-footer on the 14th to move one shot clear with four to play. Including ties, it marked the seventh lead change in 14 holes—neither player’s advantage had been more than a shot all day.

That all changed on the 15th green. With Mickelson looking at a 25-footer and seemingly better positioned in their Ryder Cup-reminiscent duel, Stenson slammed in an improbable, indescribable 51-footer from the fringe to move two shots clear with three to play.

The ball took so long to dive into the hole that Stenson took seven steps toward the cup, realized what he had done and raised a hand triumphantly as the ball finally dropped.

By this point, some of the game’s best players were oohing and aahing as much as the fans. Darned rightly so.

Annika Sorenstam @ANNIKA59

Amazing golf from both @henrikstenson and @Phil_Mickelson7

Mickelson, in the middle of a three-year victory drought, said playing so well was no consolation, even after it required a record-smashing day to beat him.

“I thought we played pretty good golf,” Mickelson said on the broadcast, trying to sound humble. “I hit a lot of good shots, and Henrik made 10 birdies. I mean, it was really impressive golf.”

The numbers were staggering. At 20 under, Stenson tied the mark for lowest score in major championship history relative to par, set the record for lowest raw score at 264 and matched the lowest round in majors history with his 63.

Only Johnny Miller, who watched from the NBC Sports booth Sunday, had ever fired a 63 in the final round to win a major, at the U.S. Open in 1973. 

How solid was Stenson? He hit 16 of 18 greens, but on the two putting surfaces that he missed, he was so close to the fringe that he used his putter. He hit more greens than any player in the field (56 of 72) and ranked fifth in fairways found (41 of 56) as well.

“I’m really happy for him as much as I’m disappointed at the outcome,” said Mickelson on NBC, who played both weekend rounds with Stenson. “He’s a class act, and he played phenomenal. He hit the ball so solid yesterday and today, especially. What a great champion.” 

It marked quite a career comeback. In early 2012, struggling with the yips off the tee, Stenson had fallen to No. 230 in the world. Now, he’ll be back in the top five.

He was so smoldering hot this weekend that he had to ditch his undershirt with two holes to go Sunday, within full view of the TV cameras. Henrik Stenson, the Golden Bare?

Golf Channel @GolfChannel

It's getting hot in here. #TheOpen https://t.co/hylb2ep3Qf

Stenson’s wardrobe change provided the perfectly saucy ending. After producing one of the greatest ball-striking stripe shows in majors history, he added a strip show, too.

That it represented a day for the ages was easy to assert. Their brilliant duel left everybody, even former major winners, wanting more.

Trevor Immelman @TrevorImmelman

That was so good we should ask the two of them if they'll play another 9.....

         

Steve Elling covers golf for Bleacher Report. You can follow him at @EllingYelling. All quotes are firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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