SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – In the normal rhythm of a golf season, there is ample time to exhale after golf’s biggest tests. The majors stretch across five months, and there’s plenty of time to recover, reflect and react. Time to breathe.
Not so this summer. Golf’s re-entry into the Olympics after an absence of 112 years has reworked and condensed the summer schedule. It’s more jammed than a Manhattan rush hour, with big tournaments aligned bumper to bumper. Why, it seemed like only yesterday that Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson separated themselves from the rest and put on a show for the ages at Royal Troon at the 145th British Open.
Wait … was it just yesterday?
Close. For Stenson more than Mickelson, the nine days since Troon have been something of a blur. Stenson, 40, whose closing 63 to Mickelson’s Sunday 65 delivered a first major to him and to Swedish male golf, already has enjoyed his abbreviated time with the prized Claret Jug. What liquids has he savored from it? “Champagne, and champagne, and champagne,” Stenson said Tuesday at Baltusrol Golf Club, site of this week’s 98th PGA Championship.
His mano-a-mano duel against Mickelson in Scotland at 20 paces reminded many of another classic that took place nearly four decades earlier: Tom Watson beating Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 in the “Duel in the Sun.” Watson shot a final-round 65 to Nicklaus’ 66, but both men have opined that the Stenson-Mickelson show at Troon was higher-quality golf. After his victory, Stenson returned home to Sweden for a few days and was overwhelmed by the support that he received. A radio interview, which Stenson did at a charity event that he co-hosts with Sergio Garcia, was carried live across the nation.
Slowly, the magic of Open Sunday at Troon – for Stenson, for Mickelson, for the game – has begun to settle in and resonate with the champion.
“It’s one of those things,” Stenson said. “It doesn’t really strike you when you’re in the middle of it. But afterwards, with the 63 and the 20 under (his score) and the way we played, we pushed each other to the limit, both of us, for 36 holes more or less, and trading punches and blows all the way around the golf course for two days. That certainly is what made us play so well. We both wanted it badly, and we performed so well because of each other.
“I’m just delighted I managed to win it in the end. When you hear the words that Jack and Tom and a lot of the best players that have ever played the game are giving us credit for how we played, that’s obviously very pleasing, and very humbling.”
Mickelson, 46, will be playing in his 97th major this week. He likes to have some downtime after playing in each one. But this summer, the schedule doesn’t allow it. Last week, he and his wife, Amy, attended the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teaching Academy in Jersey City. The Mickelsons have been involved in the project since 2004, and they greeted 154 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers who qualified to learn the latest in science and math initiatives.
This week brings Mickelson back to Baltusrol, where in 2005 he captured his second major title, the PGA Championship. When he had won his first major some 16 months earlier at Augusta, he said it would be the first of several, so Baltusrol was pivotal in validating what he had done, and where he was headed. It also fueled him with the confidence to win another Masters the next April, and nearly carried into a third consecutive major at Winged Foot in 2006.
Celebrating teachers in his offweek was good for Mickelson in that he had something to keep his mind off Troon. He said he still doesn’t know how to process what happened. He pretty much played his best, shooting 17 under par, and got beat. For a world-class player, that can be bitter to swallow.
“I look back, and I have kind of mixed emotions on that, because there is a disappointment factor of having not won,” Mickelson said. “But I’m also starting to play good golf again. I’m having a lot more fun on the course. I’m able to play the game a lot stress-free. I had two bogey-free rounds in a major. That’s really good for me.”
Stenson said the two players haven’t spoken since the 18th green at Royal Troon, when Stenson put his arm around Mickelson, and he’s sure they will catch up at some point this week. Stenson knows how Mickelson feels. He has played very well on weeks when he didn’t go home with the trophy, such as July of 2013, when he ran second to a brilliant closing 66 by Mickelson at Muirfield. Turnabout, eh?
Stenson said Tuesday that he has seen only a few highlights of his Sunday 63, but there will be days in his future, perhaps when he’s struggling to find his game, when he will want to view it in its entirety.
“It’s one of the finest – if not the finest – rounds of golf that I ever played,” Stenson said. “That might be a good tape to pull out of my drawer.”
As for Mickelson, he steps back on the treadmill this week seeking his sixth major title, and though he hasn’t won in three years, he has plenty of confidence in how he’s playing. He said he harbors no regrets from Troon.
Well, maybe there’s one.
“I don’t look back on the final round with anything that I would have done different,” he said, pausing to flash that devilish Mickelson grin, “other than go over to Stenson’s bag and bend his putter a little bit.”