I missed the Duel in the Sun. I was covering baseball or something, and I had never been to Scotland. But I was quite familiar with Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, and I knew that a Turnberry wasn’t a succulent fruit. You couldn’t be a sportswriter or a sports fan in 1977 and not be aware of golf’s greatest battle of titans—the epic showdown on the Ayrshire coast where Watson emerged victorious on the final green and the two men walked off with their arms over each other’s shoulders, humbled by the experience.
On Sunday evening last, in a Scottish hamlet just up the shore from Turnberry, I walked out of a big white tent, skirted an empty grandstand and stared across the water at the dark-dome profile of Ailsa Craig, the disenchanted island that hogs the horizon in those old Duel in the Sun photos. And I said to myself—or did I say it out loud?—I didn’t miss this one.
This was at Royal Troon, an even more venerable links than Turnberry, and Sunday’s duelers were 40-year-old Henrik Stenson, a man with something to prove, and 46-year-old Phil Mickelson, a man with little to prove but an insatiable appetite for competition. And lest you challenge my invoking of the 1977 Open Championship, let me point out that Troon’s twosome made the analogy themselves, without hearing any Sky or NBC commentary. “It certainly crossed my mind,” Mickelson said, “that match when Jack and Tom went head to head there in ’77. I certainly was thinking about that.” Mickelson, a wizard of wry, added, “I wanted to be more of Tom, in that case, than Jack.”
Alas, Phil inherited the Nicklaus role. A winner already of five major championships, including the 2013 Open at Muirfield, Mickelson seized the Sunday lead on the 1st hole, making birdie to Stenson’s bogey. Encouraged by the quick reversal—and remembering that he had come within an eyelash of shooting a major-championship-record 62 on Thursday—Mickelson went on to shoot a bogey-free 65 and finished a stunning 11 strokes ahead of his closest pursuer. And lost. By three.
“I put in my best performance today,” he said. “Played close to flawless golf and was beat.”
Which tells you how incredibly great Stenson was. Hitting greens with methodical precision and pouring in putts from every point on the compass, Sweden’s best-ever male golfer torched Troon to the tune of 10 birdies; matched the major-tournament-record for single-round score (63); established a new mark for low 72-hole score in a major (264); and silenced, once and for all, those who had labeled him “best player not to have won a major.” (Not to digress, but isn’t it interesting that three of the past four major champions— Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Stenson— wore that hat? As did Mickelson, before he won the 2004 Masters.) Those of us who pay attention to these things, and remembering that Watson stunned Nicklaus by holing a 60-foot birdie putt from off the green on Turnberry’s 15th, were jolted when Stenson canned a 51-footer from the collar on the par-4 15th to stretch his lead to two. Watson’s bomb was more devastating to his opponent, old-timers will tell you, because his fast-running ball rattled the flagstick before diving in. But old-timers can be wrong.
The only thing missing on Sunday was the poignant moment near the end of the round, where Stenson was supposed to turn to Mickelson and sum up their place in the game’s history in a single, pithy comment. Watson authored the timeless quote in 1977, when, watching thousands of sunburned Scots race for good sight lines along the 16th fairway, he turned to Nicklaus on the tee and said, “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
Stenson, if Mickelson is to be believed, got off a couple of good lines—but not the kind he’d want to share with posterity. “I don’t remember what we were laughing about,” Mickelson said of one exchange, “but Henrik’s got a good sense of humor, and he’s a good prankster.”
No matter. The man from Gothenburg made it clear that the scope of his accomplishment was proportional to the stature of his opponent. And when it was over, the two smiling warriors walked off the green together, arms around each other’s shoulders—same as Tom and Jack. “It makes it even more special to beat a competitor like Phil,” Stenson said. “He’s been one of the best to play the game … so to come out on top after such a fight with him, over these four days, makes it even more special.”
Stenson said “special” twice, and special it was. I’m not quite ready to say Sunday’s finish was specialer than the Duel in the Sun—I was, as mentioned, in absentia for the ’77 fray—but I can state with utter conviction that the Wowee in the Wind, or whatever history calls it, was the best serving of mano-a-mano competition that I’ve witnessed in three decades on the golf beat.
I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.