By Tony Jimenez
TROON, Scotland (Reuters) – Record-breaking Swede Henrik Stenson became the first Scandinavian male to capture a major when he won the British Open on Sunday, beating Phil Mickelson in an extraordinary final-round duel.
The world number six produced a swashbuckling eight-under-par 63 to finish 20-under on 264, three ahead of playing partner Mickelson (65).
The 40-year-old Stenson’s round equaled the lowest in any major championship and his winning total was also a record for any of the ‘Big Four’ tournaments.
“Wow, this will take a little while to sink in,” said Stenson as he held aloft the coveted Claret Jug. “I’m still trying to find my bearings here.
“I want to thank Phil for a fantastic battle. We played some great golf and I’m delighted to come out on top.”
Like two prize fighters in a ring, the two men traded blow after stunning blow, reeling off birdie after birdie to turn the last day of golf’s oldest major into a two-way procession.
The rest were nowhere with American JB Holmes (69) taking third spot on 278, 11 behind Mickelson as the leading pair evoked memories of the great ‘Duel in the Sun’ Turnberry Open of 1977 when Tom Watson edged out Jack Nicklaus in another epic head-to-head.
Steve Stricker (69) of the U.S. was in fourth place on 279, one in front of Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, Tyrrell Hatton of England and Spaniard Sergio Garcia.
Mickelson showed he meant business with a first-hole birdie after drilling a majestic approach to tap-in range while overnight leader Stenson took three putts.
The Swede’s response was instant and emphatic as he birdied five of the next seven holes, making a complete nonsense of gusts of up to 25mph on the windswept Ayrshire coastline.
Five-times major champion Mickelson, however, refused to be cowed and an eagle three at the fourth followed by a birdie two holes later meant he was only one behind at the turn.
The putts continued to fall at the 10th as both players birdied yet again.
The 46-year-old American, bidding to become the oldest winner of the Open in the modern era, leveled again at the 11th when his title rival three-putted for the second time.
As the wind died down and the sun made a rare appearance, Stenson delivered the coup de grace with a hat-trick of birdies at the 14th, 15th and 16th giving him a two-shot advantage with two holes to play.
Mickelson’s last chance came and went at the 16th when his eagle putt just missed.
Stenson, full of adrenaline on the 18th tee, hammered his tee shot 310 yards down the fairway and was mightily relieved to see it stop 12 inches short of one of Royal Troon’s fiendish pot bunkers.
He safely found the green with his approach and rolled in another monster putt to complete victory and post the 29th round of 63 in major championship history.
“I knew he wasn’t going to back down at any point and in a way that makes it easier,” said Stenson. “I knew I had to keep on pushing, keep on giving myself birdie chances.”
Mickelson, who beat Stenson into second place when he won the 2013 Open at Muirfield, was generous in his praise.
“It’s disappointing to come in second but I’m happy for Henrik, he’s really a great champion,” said the left-hander. “We’ve been friends for some time.
“I’ve always thought he is one of the best ball-strikers in the game and that major championships are perfectly suited for him. I knew he would ultimately come through and win.”
(Editing by Martyn Herman and Pritha Sarkar)