There are Opens. The last three major championships played at Royal Troon were Opens. And then there are Opens. On Sunday, we got the latter as Phil Mickelson completed a week in which he made just four bogeys, hit 75 percent of greens in regulation, shot a 63 and a 65, tied the all-time Open Championship scoring record of 267 and would have won or gone to a playoff in every single Open before this one.
This Sunday at Royal Troon? He lost.
By three strokes.
That's because Henrik Stenson shot one of the great rounds in major championship history with a 63 at Royal Troon to take the 145th Open Championship with a score of 264.
To put this in perspective, Mickelson finished second and was 11 strokes clear of third-place finisher J.B. Holmes. Lefty would have won the other eight majors at Royal Troon by a minimum of five strokes. And he couldn't touch Stenson.
Phil Mickelson finished 11 shots ahead of 3rd place.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) July 17, 2016
Nobody has won #TheOpen by 11 or more since 1870.
It's not as if the scoring was particularly easy either. Rory McIlroy had the round of the day with a 67 until Stenson and Mickelson came through. They both beat him by multiple strokes. Stenson made an Open-record 10 birdies on the day. Ten! That included this one at the final hole as he put his hands around the Claret Jug.
"I was hopeful that I could shoot something in the mid 60s," said Mickelson, who did that and more. "I didn't know if it was possible because there weren't really a lot of low scores."
The superlatives flow like the wine will later from that jug. Stenson set The Open Championship scoring record by three strokes. He set the major championship scoring record by one at 264, besting David Toms' 2001 PGA Championship score of 265. He set the strokes to par record at an Open at 20 under (besting Tiger Woods' old record of 19 under). He tied the strokes to par record at a major (matching Jason Day from the 2015 PGA Championship).
Stenson deserves all of those marks and more.
This tournament likely won't resonate with fans like Tiger Woods' 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach or Jack Nicklaus' 1986 show at Augusta, but you could make a legitimate and statistically-relevant argument that Stenson's performance at the 2016 Open was the greatest by anyone in major history.
Final numbers: Stenson's 20 under vs +9 field. In 2000 U.S. Open, Tiger shot 12 under vs +17 field. Both about 29 shots better.— 15th Club (@15thClub) July 17, 2016
All day fans and media members tried to slap a catchy name on this blow-for-blow match. None of them rang true because rounds like this one between Mickelson and Stenson don't need marketing. This was golf beyond nomenclature in the final round of a major in which they were the only two true contenders. This kind of performance needs only be written about in red numbers, not headlined in black letters. Everything else is superfluous.
The craziest part about it all might have been that Stenson made bogey at the first hole. Mickelson made birdie after throwing a dart, and the lead shifted Lefty's way by one after he paid tribute to the precious jug of silver he once caressed, and we were off to what we didn't know at the time would be one of the historically great battles in major history.
Phil hoping for a little luck from the Claret Jug. pic.twitter.com/vMiHGvYcZf— Adam Sarson (@Adam_Sarson) July 17, 2016
"I knew he wasn't going to back down at any point and, in a way, that makes it easier for myself," said Stenson. "I knew I had to keep on pushing, keep on giving myself birdie chances, and he wasn't going to give it to me. So I had to pull away."
It did feel like the match play style -- the two were close to 10 strokes clear of the rest of the field all day -- really helped both of them. They each went after every pin and barely left any putts short of the hole.
"I felt like this was going to be my turn," added Stenson. "I knew I was going to have to battle back if it wasn't, but I think that was the extra self-belief that made me go all the way this week."
Mickelson landed an eagle blow at No. 4 and a birdie at No. 6 but only picked up a stroke total on those holes because Stenson poured in birdies right on top of him. Mickelson just could not wriggle free of the Big Swede's iron grasp on the golf tournament.
"After six holes, it was pretty obvious it was going to be just us," said Mickelson later on. "I hit a lot of good shots, and Henrik made 10 birdies. It was really impressive golf. It's probably the best I've played and not won. 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."
On a week in which the scoring average on the back nine at Royal Troon ballooned to an average of 2 over, Mickelson made no mistakes and shot a 2-under 33 coming home. Stenson did him two better with a 31. The tournament teetered when Stenson made this 50-foot putt on the par-4 15th.
Then it all but ended when he backed it up with an up-and-down birdie on the par-5 16th to take a two-stroke lead going to the final two holes.
"I had about a 45-footer on 15 and I'm thinking, 'I've got to make that,'" said Mickelson. "I had to make 30, 40-footers just to try to keep pace with him, and wasn't able to do it there in the end."
The birdie on N0. 18 for Stenson was just the nightcap to a hard day's work.
"It's disappointing to come in second, but I'm happy for Henrik," said Mickelson. "He's really a great champion. We've been friends for some time. 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. 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."
Explained Stenson: "It hasn't quite sunk in yet, but I'm very happy. Very proud of the way I played. It was a great match with Phil. It seemed like it was going to be a two-horse race, and it was all the way to the end. We managed to pull away from the rest of the field and we both played some great golf. It makes it even more special to beat a competitor like Phil. He's been one of the best to play the game, and certainly in the last 20 years. So to come out on top after such a fight with him over these four days, it makes it even more special.
"It's a dream come true. As a young kid ... it was Ryder Cup and The Open Championship, those were the big early memories I had. So to sit there and hold this trophy is really amazing."
You get the feeling that neither golfer really understood what he was a part of so soon after the tournament ended. How could you blame them? It's nearly impossible to contextualize something when you're that close to it. But make no mistake, we got one of the great majors ever this week in Scotland.
So often do we get someone blowing a major late and hand-packaging it for the presumed runner up (you need only peek back at this year's Masters for that). So often we get a good but not great finish. So often we get no-name winners who never win again (Todd Hamilton won the last Open at Royal Troon). So often we build up major championships only to be let down in the end.
This was not one of those.
We got quite possibly the greatest final round in major history from Stenson over one of the 10-12 best golfers to ever put on golf spikes (who also played his own best final round at a major). We got 14 birdies and an eagle from the two leaders. We got a duel featuring two incompatible personalities who clearly love the heat of a back-nine match for a life-changing trophy.
We got a four-hour flagstick hunt that ended with a putt nobody in attendance will ever forget. We got a country's first major and Lefty's 11th heartbreak. We got a best ball score of 59 on a Sunday when 67 by anyone looked like it would be outrageously good. We got it all at Royal Troon on Sunday.
What an Open.