Perhaps it was something to do with the bracing sea air in the county of Ayrshire in Scotland which was responsible for one of golf’s gargantuan performances in the 145th Open at Royal Troon.
After all, The Open began life just a few miles further down the coast in Prestwick in 1860, and Ayrshire had also witnessed the famous ‘Duel in the Sun’ at Turnberry, when Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus battled each other for the 1977 Claret Jug like two steely-eyed gunfighters from the Wild West.
Step forward Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon on July 17, 2016. On an epic day, on the grandest of stages, the pair produced a head-to-head contest which was at least the equal of the Watson-Nicklaus shoot-out 39 years earlier. Stenson, the ‘nearly’ man of major golf, finally lost that unwelcome tag with a majestic closing round of 63. Mickelson shot a bogey-free 65 and lost by three.
Watson and Nicklaus were in agreement – this head-to-head battle surpassed their own blockbuster from 1977. “This was better,” insisted Watson. “Just look at the facts. It was a shoot-out right from the start – great shot after great shot – and one for the ages.”
Stenson, a natural left-hander who learned the game right-handed, was a scratch amateur by the age of 18 and cut his teeth on the European Challenge Tour with considerable success before landing his first European Tour title in 2001. When he sank the winning putt to help Europe retain The Ryder Cup in 2006, his ascent to the upper echelons of the game seemed assured.
It was not to be. The Swede suffered an inexplicable decline, sliding from fourth – in 2009, when he won the prestigious Players Championship on the PGA Tour – to 230th on the World Ranking in 2012. Stenson was clearly in urgent need of some TLC and found a willing confidant in one of the world’s leading coaches, Dubai-based Pete Cowen.
The pair struck up an immediate rapport and set about healing Stenson’s ailing game. The signs that the patient was responding to treatment were soon apparent, to the extent that in 2013 he became the first player to win the FedEx Cup in the USA and the European Tour’s Race to Dubai in the same season.
That same year, he flirted with major success, finishing runner-up behind Mickelson in The Open at Muirfield before taking third place in the US PGA Championship. In 2014, he tied for third in the US Open and fourth in the US PGA. He was getting closer. The restorative powers of Cowen’s coaching medicine were taking effect.
Finally, in 2016, the demons were exorcised. Stenson was imperious over the weekend at Royal Troon, becoming the first Swedish male golfer to savour major championship glory. Two weeks later, Stenson was a serious challenger for the US PGA Championship, and battling for the final day lead, before slipping back to finish tied seventh behind Jimmy Walker of the U.S.
The next step for the Swede was his shot at Olympic Gold in Rio de Janeiro and whilst he didn’t achieve the top spot on the podium, he got closer than any of the chasers finishing with a silver medal.
As Watson pronounced, it was one for the ages. High Noon at Troon. It might never be bettered.