TROON, SCOTLAND - Henrik Stenson is the champion golfer of the year, thanks to a final round for the ages.
He kept hitting the best shots of his life, one after another, and he needed each one to stay ahead of Phil Mickelson in a British Open duel that ranked among the best in major championship history.
Stenson made 10 birdies, including a 50-foot putt across the 15th green that had him pumping his fist in a rare show of emotion Sunday.
The final stroke in this masterpiece was a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that curled into the cup on the final turn. It gave him an 8-under 63, tying Johnny Miller at Oakmont for the greatest closing round by a major champion, and Stenson didn’t even realize it until he sat down to sign his card.
Records didn’t matter. This was about winning his first major.
“Right now I’m running on adrenaline. But there will be some point when I’ll struggle to make it up the stairs when I get back to the house,” Stenson said after four hours of an epic battle between two 40-somethings at Royal Troon.
Mickelson was a runnerup for the 11th time in a major, but never like this. He can’t look back at a mistake because he really didn’t make any. He opened with a 63, closed with a career-best 65, shot the second-best score in Open history and was 11 shots better than everyone in the field.
“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. I got beat by 10 birdies.”
He got beat by arguably the best final round in 156 years of major championships.
Miller also made 10 birdies in his final round of the 1973 U.S. Open, and then waited to see if anyone could catch him. Stenson started the final round with a one-shot lead over Mickelson, and knew it would be a two-man race from the opening hole when Mickelson nearly holed out from the fairway.
He answered a great shot with one of his own, finally pulling away with birdies on the 14th and 15th holes, and then a third in a row after Mickelson drilled a 3-wood onto the green at the par-5 16th and came within a fraction of an inch of making an eagle.
The last birdie was for the record book.
Stenson finished at 264, breaking by one shot the 72-hole scoring record in the majors that David Toms set in the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. His 20-under par matched Jason Day’s record for lowest under par that was set at last year’s PGA Championship.
His biggest challenge was 46-year-old Mickelson, who has won five majors.
“I knew he wasn’t going to back down at any point, and in a way that makes it easier for myself,” Stenson said. “I knew I had to keep on pushing, keep on giving myself birdie chances. He wasn’t going to give it to me, so I had to pull away. I’m just delighted I managed to do that with a couple of birdies at the right time.”
This was heavyweight material, reminiscent of the “Duel in the Sun” just down the Ayrshire coastline at Turnberry in 1977, when Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus battled to the final hole, and no one else was closer than 10 shots.
Stenson and Mickelson were never separated by more than two shots over 40 straight holes until the Swede’s final birdie. In the final round, they combined to make 14 birdies and an eagle. If this was a better-ball match, they would have shot 59.
“I’ve always thought that he is one of the best ball-strikers in the game and that major championships are perfectly suited for him,” Mickelson said. “I knew that he would ultimately come through and win. I’m happy that he did. I’m disappointed that it was at my expense.”
J.B. Holmes won the B-Flight. He finished third, 14 shots behind.
Stenson won his first major in his 42nd attempt, becoming only the ninth player to capture his first major after turning 40. Beyond the score, the measure of his performance was that he putted for a birdie on every hole Sunday in a mild wind off the Irish Sea. Stenson three-putted for bogey from just off the first green, and he three-putted on No. 11 to fall back into a tie for the lead.
They matched pars on only six of the 18 holes.
Stenson became only the fourth player to win the British Open with all four rounds in the 60s, joining Tiger Woods, Nick Price and Greg Norman. He also ended a streak of six American winners at Royal Troon that dated to 1950.
He gave Sweden a long-awaited major in men’s golf, 19 years after Jesper Parnevik lost a 54-hole lead at Royal Troon. Stenson said Parnevik send him a message that said, “Go out and finish what I didn’t manage to finish.”
“I’m really proud to have done that, and it’s going to be massive for golf in Sweden with this win,” Stenson said.
Maybe he can take that silver jug down to Rio in his search of Olympic gold.
Golf’s top four players have withdrawn from the Olympics, but the Rio Games will have at least two of this year’s major champions — Stenson and Masters winner Danny Willett of England.
There’s one more major to play before Rio. Take a breath, Henrik. The PGA Championship starts a week from Thursday.