Sport Golf

Tuesday 20 February 2018

A worthy winner takes it all as the Iceman keeps cool under intense fire

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Click to enlarge

Oliver Brown

The Iceman cometh. Henrik Stenson proved, as he vaporised Open records for fun, that Swedes are not renowned for their exhibitionist streak for nothing. He was not so much hot as thermonuclear in this closing round for the ages, forced to peel off his undershirt beside the 17th tee as he all but overheated in a blaze of brilliance.

There is little, if anything, to stand alongside the show that Stenson, with Phil Mickelson as perhaps golf's most over-achieving understudy, put on yesterday in the Ayrshire gloom.

As his ball at the 18th tracked towards the cup and fell on its final rotation, even the marshals guarding the grandstands high-fived each other. It seemed the only natural reaction when faced with such a feat.

For this was, almost beyond argument, the greatest final round ever produced at a major. One could make a case for Johnny Miller's 63 to win the US Open in 1973, at the notoriously difficult Oakmont, but the circumstances were vastly different.

Miller came through from the middle of a crowded bunch, on a day when he felt he had no chance, while Stenson, peppered by Mickelson's fire at every turn, delivered a defining example of sustained and nerveless front-running.

As they stood stage right by the clubhouse, ready to receive their trophies, Stenson and Mickelson had the faraway look of two prizefighters who had traded haymakers for 18 rounds.

Even Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, in a timeless duel at Turnberry in 1977 that ended with them embracing on the last fairway, never quite elevated each other's play as these two managed.

Nicklaus, the runner-up on that day 39 years ago, finished 10 shots clear of Hubert Green in third.

By time this slugfest ended, Mickelson, posting a 17-under-par score that would have been good enough to win all but four Opens, was 11 ahead of his nearest pursuer, JB Holmes.

It was an object lesson in the escalating effect the best battles can have.

Where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal drove one another, during the 2008 final at Wimbledon, to heights to which the rest could merely aspire, Stenson and Mickelson created a chasm between themselves and the pack.

Waging their own private brawl, the pair of them ended up lapping the field.

Stenson absorbed the moment with his signature cool. When his time came to step forward to lift the Claret Jug, he tossed his cap insouciantly towards his wife, Emma.

There was, as befitting his Scandinavian froideur, little outward sign of emotion, but then he admitted it would be some while before he appreciated the magnitude of what he had just achieved.

Instead, he touchingly dedicated his triumph to Mike Gerbich, a long-time friend who passed away from cancer in the US last week.

When he and Mickelson had last faced off in an Open, at Muirfield in 2013, it was the American who seized the glory with a consummate 66. Here, Stenson, emphatically scotching the accusations of flakiness that stalked him earlier in his career, purged that memory with a transcendent display.

His little strip-tease at the 17th, echoing an incident at Doral in 2009 when he undressed to his underwear to hit a shot from a lake, offered an expression of the maverick genius within.

He played like a man possessed, as if determined to fulfil his talent after a career spent fending off the arrows of outrageous fortune.

It is a fact sometimes overlooked about Stenson that he lost over £5m in the Allen Stanford 'Ponzi scheme' seven years ago, only properly cancelling out his losses when he took home the £7.5m bounty for winning the FedEx Cup in 2013.

He has spoken darkly of what he would like to do to Stanford for the pain this episode inflicted on his family, but the recognition that he was a Major champion at last appeared to bring him back to serenity.

Not that his life is about to become calmer in the weeks ahead. Stenson flies out to Baltusrol, New Jersey, for the USPGA in a week's time, before representing Sweden at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"Got any security personnel I can hire in here?" he called out, midway through his press conference. "Raise your hand."

As he retreated into the Troon twilight, Stenson left a fair slice of the golfing world in slack-jawed wonder.

"Outrageous," said Danny Willett, this year's Masters winner, eclipsed to the tune of 27 shots.

"Inspiring," agreed Jordan Spieth, a 22-year-old not unfamiliar with giddying accomplishments himself.


Few ever disputed Stenson's innate talent, but it was a jolt to most that he was able to channel it so spectacularly, and on such a stage.

Stenson was asked if it was the best day of his life and replied, diplomatically, that the birth of his three children might have to take precedence. If it was a catharsis for him, it was equally so for Sweden, who at last have a winner of a men's major.

For over a decade Annika Sorenstam had dominated on the women's side, but Stenson ensured, at the Open, at least, that his brethren would no longer be best remembered for Jesper Parnevik's near-miss to Nick Price in 1994.

The winner, as a certain pop ensemble from his native land once put it, takes it all.

Mickelson, understandably, cut a sombre figure after four rounds that should, on any other weekend, have propelled him to a sixth major at a canter.

He is acutely conscious, at the age of 46, that his opportunities to contend for these prizes are fast diminishing, but a period of reflection might allow him to see that it is some kind of miracle in itself - given how he stood to be the oldest Open winner since Old Tom Morris in 1867 - that he is still reaching these standards at all.

His place in the pantheon is already assured. Plus, he can be satisfied, once the pain subsides, that for all the majors he has seen plucked from his grasp, this was an occasion where he simply had to salute his opponent's other-worldly response.

Stenson was not just in the zone but in some fifth dimension, soaring above all challengers on a crest of inspiration. Clasping the cherished jug close to his chest last night, he did not seem ready to return to Earth any time soon. © The Daily Telegraph, London

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