Tour Confidential: Henrik Stenson’s Historic British Open Win

July 17, 2016

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Henrik Stenson shot an eight-under-par 63 to Phil Mickelson’s 65 to win the British Open by three on Sunday, in what will be remembered as one of the great duels in the history of the majors. Given the caliber of Stenson’s opponent and all that he was playing for—his first major title, Sweden’s first men’s major title—where does his Sunday performance rank among the all-time greatest final rounds?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Instant classic. Nicklaus and Watson were proven commodities by Turnberry, Tiger was Tiger by Valhalla, but for this to be Henrik’s first major win is legendary stuff.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I agree, Alan. This one was impressive. Given all the reasons to doubt these guys, especially with the way Phil was starting to spray it Saturday, I wondered if they would go the other way, like Jason Gore and Retief Goosen at the 2005 U.S. Open. Boy did that not happen. What a terrific show. 

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): If we’re measuring by the spine-tingle-o-meter, Nicklaus’s Sunday in 1986 at Augusta still tops the list in my memory, but no doubt today was epic. After the first hole, with that birdie-bogey exchange, it looked like we might see a Stenson stumble. Far from it. Great theater. But did Peter Jacobsen really have to say, “How Swede it is?” 

Jessica Marksbury, multimedia editor, GOLF Digital (@Jess_Marksbury): Is it crazy to say that Henrik’s final round was the best performance ever? I mean, how long have we waited for someone to tie Johnny’s mark of 63 in a final round at a major? Especially when his nearest competitor—a Hall of Famer with five majors to his zero—nearly matched him! I was worried that this Open might be remembered as a bit boring after Saturday’s round. No one really stepped up to the plate to challenge Henrik and Phil with a super-low score, and a man-to-man duel on Sunday can easily become a war of attrition. But to have two players separate themselves from the field—by more than 10 shots!—with such epic final-round performances was just unreal. This could be an open-the-floodgates win for Henrik.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Epic indeed. Neither guy blinked, but in the end, Stenson had an answer for each of his rare mistakes as well as Phil’s jaw-dropping escapes. And never mind the 63-65 comparison. Even more amazing is that Phil had a one-shot lead when he walked off the 1st green, made an eagle, three birdies and 13 pars from there, and was beaten over those 17 holes by four shots. 

MORFIT: Phil’s ‘Best’ Not Good Enough in Sunday Slugfest

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Jess, it’s not crazy to say that Stenson’s final round was the best performance ever … but it’s wrong. I know we’re exhausted from re-living Johnny Miller’s 63, but the highlights bear repeating. He shot eight-under-par 63 on a day when only three other players broke 70. He hit every green in regulation or better, and this is at Oakmont! Ten of his iron shots finished within 15 feet of the hole, including three 4-irons. I’m also reminded of Ben Hogan’s 67 at the “Monster,” Oakland Hills, during a tournament where not one player broke the par of 70 during the first three rounds, and only one other did in Round 4, a 69. What I’m saying is that those courses had serious defenses, whereas on this Sunday, soft, breezeless Troon didn’t. Having said that, Stenson was still phenomenal. It certainly would have been more intriguing if there were several players that he would have to beat, especially a few of the so-called Big 4, but that doesn’t detract, really. He started with a nervous one-shot lead, beat a five-time major winner, and shot 63 with two three-putts. It will rank for me as a top 5 greatest final-round performance.

Marksbury: Totally valid point, Joe. No doubt that Oakmont was a tougher test than Royal Troon on Sunday. But I can’t help but give a bit more credit to Henrik for shooting 63 from the front—especially against a surging Phil Mickelson—as opposed to Johnny, who rallied from six shots back. 

2.) Phil Mickleson, who hasn’t won since the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, played beautifully all week, closing with a five-under 65, his best-ever finishing round in a major. Was this Open just another case of a crafty veteran catching lightning in a bottle on a quirky links course, or was it evidence that the 46-year-old can and will continue to compete in all the majors for years to come?

Shipnuck: Phil has been playing well all season and consistently a factor at the majors for years. I don’t see any reason that it will end soon; he’s taking better care of himself; he’s fired-up about his swing change and this near-miss will only keep him more motivated.

Morfit: I don’t know about all the majors, but the PGA Championship at Baltusrol starts in 11 days, and of course Phil won the PGA on that course in 2005. Unless he has an Open hangover, I fully expect him to be in the thick of it. Among my memories from 11 years ago, this, from an unknown fan: “Phil, you’re so —-ing East Coast!”

Sens: I dunno, Cam. He looks like he’s eating a lot fewer meatball grinders than the East Coasters I grew up with. He’s fit, and he’s said all along that he’d been energized by his swing changes. Barring an injury, he’s got the game to compete at any venue, and he should for several years to come, 50 being the new 50 and all.

SCORES: Check Out the Final Leaderboard from the Open at Troon

Morfit: It’s thrilling to see everything coming together for Mickelson after all the hard work and dietary give-ups. To your point, Josh, this is not a man who treads willingly into the land of peach-pit tea and arugula.

Godich: This game is all about momentum, and Phil most certainly has it heading into the PGA. He won’t contend at every major (who does?), but he’ll be in the hunt plenty. And it will happen when we least expect it. That’s what Phil does.

Marksbury: I agree, guys. I remember thinking at the U.S. Open, “Man, Phil looks better than ever!” But missing the fairway off the tee can be a lot more penal stateside than overseas. Remember, he missed the cut at both the Masters and the U.S. Open this year. But there’s no doubt he’s resurgent at the moment, and there’s some pep in his step. If he keeps putting well, I think he’ll be a factor at Baltusrol in a little over a week’s time.

Passov: It was so much fun watching the “mature” Phil Mickelson this week, savoring links play, hitting irons off the tee where they were called for, chipping low runners when he could have hit his patented sky lobs, rolling in birdie bombs and nifty 15-foot par-savers. I wish we could watch him on this kind of stage more often. There’s way too much emphasis on length on the regular Tour and Phil gets caught up in smashing it early and often, with one too many wayward results. Yet, he was already having a superb, if inconsistent, year in 2016, fifth in scoring average, with a handful of seconds and thirds. He’s re-energized, he’s always compelling, and I see no reason he can’t keep it going at the PGA and well beyond.

3.) In the space of a couple of days last week, Rory McIlroy said it’s not my job to grow the game of golf.” He also said, Ive spent seven years trying to please everyone, and I figured out that I cant really do that, so I may as well be true to myself. Spieth, meanwhile, bemoaned the negative questions he has been fielding from the press about his dip in form from his historic 2015. “I think that’s a bit unfair to me,” he said. Both players caught some flak for their candor, but what’s the big deal? We want our athletes to speak their minds, right?

Morfit: As a journalist I want them to keep chirping, but as a fan of both—and both are very appealing players and people—I want them to shut up. It’s only hurting their games, and neither has been on form. Why do they want to make it harder on themselves?

Shipnuck: We love honesty. Woe-is-me whining is lame. 

Sens: So, despite our culture’s insistence on hero worship, two more star athletes reveal themselves to be human. I’m shocked, shocked! 

Marksbury: I’d like to think that maybe Rory was a bit unfairly lambasted, at least in the sense that “growing the game” really isn’t his job. Should he have stated that aloud? Probably not. But he was being honest. And who can deny that he does his part in his own way, by devoting time to charity, youth clinics, and just generally being a cool, athletic player that kids want to emulate? Isn’t that growing the game? And as for Jordan, well, what can you do? His stature in the game is such that we want to hear from him all the time, for better or worse. That’s what happens when you’re a Golden Boy. The world wants you to remain (and act like) a Golden Boy forever. You have to be willing to take the bad with the good. 

Godich: No secret that both of these guys are frustrated with their play (see Rory’s snapped three-wood), so I’m inclined to give them a pass. To a degree, Rory has a point when he says it’s not his job to grow the game. That’s not to say he doesn’t, whether he realizes it or not. As for Spieth, he set the bar so high—at 21, no less—that expectations are a bit unrealistic. He could have chosen his words more wisely, but lest we forget the guy has two wins, a second and a third in 2016. And whining or not, I appreciate the candidness. It beats, “It is what it is.”

Passov: Rory and Jordan are getting dangerously close to that place that Andre Agassi found himself in back in the late 80s early 90s. At first, he was a media darling, had the look, the personality, both on-court and in pressers, and genius for hitting a tennis ball. Eventually, he rebelled a bit, began to lose and fans and media turned on him … for being human. Andre eventually turned it around again, in the biggest way possible. I’m thinking that perhaps Rory and Jordan can’t possibly live up to the halos with which we’ve anointed them, but perhaps they’re exhausted from the fishbowl scrutiny, too. I’m a huge fan of their candor, of their outgoing personalities and I’d rather give both the benefit of the doubt, so as to encourage more of the same.

4.) What do you make of McIlroy’s point about growing the game? Do the game’s elite players shoulder a responsibility to carry the torch for golf, or are making birdies and pleasing their sponsors their only real duties?

Morfit: To Rory’s credit, he softened his comments slightly two days later. He noted his involvement in the PGA Junior League, and the First Tee. He gets it. I just think he suffered a brain cramp in front of the microphones, and lashed out at having to be a public figure and being put in a no-win situation from the get-go with the Rio Olympics. Oh, well. Nobody’s perfect.    

Sens: Right, Cam. Get a guy in front of a microphone and pepper him with enough questions, and eventually he’s going to say something impolitic. Rory’s “grow the game” comment rang out to me more as a way of defending his decision to skip the Olympics, which had been marketed (misguidedly, I think) as a means to grow the game. In the bigger picture, Rory seems to have his heart in a good place.

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Shipnuck: It’s indicative of the general attitude of pro athletes: they’re all give and no take. They want the money, fame, glory, girls, etc. but most are very, very reluctant to offer anything in return. Maybe their performance is enough. It is nice when a few golfers have an enlarged perspective.

Godich: Not sure about that, Alan. We see plenty of examples of golfers giving back, McIlroy and Spieth among them. And these guys are smart and savvy, so they’ll figure it out. Again, the refreshing candidness beats the alternative.

Passov: Alan, how much should Rory and Jordan be expected to give back at this point in their lives/careers? Spieth’s not even old enough to rent a golf cart at some courses. I hope they’re both great guys who do give back in ways known and unknown to me, but all I want is for them to entertain me with their stellar play. Beyond that, being a good guy is a bonus. When I see Rickie Fowler signing every last autograph and posing for every last photo on Tuesday afternoon at the Phoenix Open, it makes me root for him. Still, I’m not going to demand that from him or from anyone else.

Marksbury: In my mind, “growing the game” starts with accessibility and cost. That’s not something Tour players have much control over, unless you build and design a cool, affordable course like Kenny Perry did in his hometown of Franklin, Kentucky. How’s that for growing the game!

5.) The chief of the Rio Games, Carlos Nuzman, came right out and said it: Golfers have withdrawn from the Games in droves not because of Zika but “because there is no prize money.” Is Nuzman right?

Godich: Nuzman should get his own house in order before he starts throwing stones. Everything I’ve read about Rio is that it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Several things are at work here: the Zika virus, a crammed summer schedule, security concerns and apathy, among other things. But money ain’t one of them. 

Morfit: No, he’s totally incorrect here. If that were the case, we’d be seeing guys bail on the Ryder Cup, which almost never happens. It’s not the money. It’s the safety, or perceived lack thereof.

Shipnuck: That’s part of it. Misinformation and fear-mongering about Zika is part of it. So are nebulous “security” concerns and burnout after the majors. But the biggest issues are apathy and point-missing.

Sens: Apathy is exactly it. It was there from the beginning, even if most of the big names did their best to say the right thing. Zika and safety and scheduling concerns has given players cover to make a decision that they seemed inclined toward from the start.

Marksbury: We’ll never know the players’s real reasons for withdrawing from the Olympics, but it’s super unfair of Nuzman to say it’s about money. That’s ridiculous. Zika is a very real and very terrifying threat, and golfers don’t have the benefit of being inside, like gymnasts or swimmers. Plus, it’s virtually impossible to prevent a mosquito bite. Even if you don’t have a growing family, why take the risk? Not to mention the sanitation and security issues in Rio. Let’s just hope for better in Tokyo in 2020.  

Passov: Jess, on this one, I’m with you. Who really knows the real reason(s) for the exodus of top male golfers, but lack of cash isn’t it. And it’s the ultimate in hypocrisy for any Olympics official to get preachy about money. The whole lot of them are as crooked as the FIFA folks were. It’s all about riches for the IOC. Do you think the top golfers would be withdrawing if this summer’s Games were in Chicago? No way. And the fact that the IOC awarded the games to Rio over Chicago should tell you something right there. Oh, I’ll watch the Games, including the golf, but the “purity” aspect to the Olympics has been absent for decades.

6.) Eighth-place finisher Andrew “Beef” Johnston delighted fans at Royal Troon—and on telecasts across the globe—with his burly beard, jovial manner and everyman appeal. Who’s the single greatest character the game has ever produced?

Morfit: Sam Snead.

Shipnuck: Ooooooh, good call, Cam. But I’ll go with Walter Hagen.

Godich: C’mon, Alan. Miguel Angel Jimenez says hello.

Sens: Carl Spackler.

Marksbury: Chi Chi Rodriguez!

Passov: Given that I’m having trouble matching or topping these, I’ll go with Babe Didrikson Zaharias.