SOUTHPORT, England — The words could be chalked up to heat-of-the-moment stuff, a reaction both funny and real. But they have just as much meaning today as they did a year ago, when said a few hundred miles north in Scotland.
Stenson’s final-round 63 to win the Claret Jug in 2016 has only grown in stature, even though the lowest score to be shot in any major championship has been matched twice in the succeeding three major championships, bringing the overall total to 31.
But not all 63s are created equal, as Johnny Miller not-so-tactfully noted last month after Justin Thomas became just the fifth player to shoot 63 in a U.S. Open, when Thomas did so in the third round at Erin Hills outside of Milwaukee.
Miller, who was the first to shoot 63, at Oakmont during the final round to win the 1973 U.S. Open, said that Thomas’ “63 for a par-72 is a heck of a score. Even if it was the Milwaukee Open.”
You don’t hear any such quips about Stenson’s 63 at Troon.
“Tour guys are usually slow to give amazing praise,” said Geoff Ogilvy, winner of the 2006 U.S. Open and well-versed in golf history. “But anyone who would think about golf or played Troon or played the last few groups of a major with a chance to win … would be borderline speechless.
“Just watch the tape. No words are going to do it justice. Go play Troon one time, then sit down and watch that Sunday and tell me if you have any words to describe how good that is. Speechless, I would say.”
Can it happen again this week? Weather is likely to dictate. Padraig Harrington‘s winning total at Royal Birkdale in 2008 was 283, 3 over par, with the tournament played in mostly cool, blustery temperatures.
But if the wind lies down or if rain makes the course soft, look out. Of course, such a warning last year never would have prepared you for Stenson’s feat.
Stenson’s was the 10th 63 in Open history — Mickelson shot the same score during the opening round when he narrowly missed a birdie putt on the last hole that would have given a major championship-first 62 — but the Swede joined Greg Norman as the only players to do so and win. Norman shot 63 during the second round of his victory at Turnberry in 1986.
Amazingly, Stenson made two bogeys. But after a bogey at the first, he birdied five of the next seven holes. Mickelson, playing with him in the last group, matched Stenson’s outward 4-under 32, leaving the rest of the field miles behind.
“I was well aware of how tough it was playing,” said Rickie Fowler. “What him and Phil did in the final round was a clinic. They got into a completely different tournament than anyone else was in. You can get into those situations and forget where you’re at. You start feeding off each other. For that to be in a final round of a major, the British Open, it’s not going to happen much.”
J.B. Holmes finished in third place, 11 shots back of Mickelson — a record for the number of shots between a second- and third-place finisher. He was 14 strokes back of Stenson.
“They both played amazing, it was great golf,” Holmes said. “I remember looking at the scoreboard and they were both taking off. They were playing great and making putts. Somebody usually does it every day out here at some point; it just happened to be both those guys almost every day. It was a rare occasion.”
Thomas’ 63 at Erin Hills fits the same description for a U.S. Open. It was the first to be shot in that tournament since Vijay Singh did so in 2003 at Olympia Fields and just the fifth overall. He joined Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Singh, although Thomas’ 9-under score was the lowest in relation to par ever shot in a U.S. Open.
The score was accomplished when Thomas hit two 3-woods to the par-5 18th green and rolled in the eagle putt.
“What him and Phil did is unbelievable and the rounds that they had,” Thomas said. “And to do it on Sunday when someone’s chasing you down is way more impressive than my 63, I would say. When you’re that good a golfer as Henrik and you’re on, it doesn’t matter where you are.”
History suggests that is not so much the case. There has been plenty of fine golf played in majors, but just those 31 scores of 63. Only two have ever been shot at the Masters, Norman being the last to do so, in 1996. The PGA Championship has the most 63s with 14, including three in the past four years — although Robert Streb‘s second-round 63 at Baltusrol last year on his way to a tie for seventh seems less than memorable now.
The 63 score is no doubt special. But when it occurs, the circumstances often have a way of making it stand out.
“That’s what makes it more impressive, because he needed it,” Ogilvy said of Stenson. “Justin Thomas’ 63 was a great score, it was incredible. But it was all about making Sunday easier. [Thomas shot 75 in the final round.] This [Troon] was a proper golf course. You could make an 8 like that. Back and forth. No one gave.
“We’re not playing Indian Wells here or PGA West. … The best round I’ve seen or heard about in my career because of the circumstances. It would have been an unbelievable score on Thursday at the Scottish Open, but in The Open on Sunday when a 66 wouldn’t have done it? I mean, wow.”
Stenson, long known as one of the game’s premier ball strikers, seemingly made putts from everywhere. If there has been a weakness in the Swede’s game, it would be considered on the greens, where he has been average at times and unable to take advantage of opportunities.
“Henrik was just magical,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s caddie. “He was making those putts. Three or four times he made putts from outside of Phil.”
Marc Leishman offered his take.
“One of the reasons it’s impressive,” said Leishman, who lost in a playoff at the 2015 Open to Zach Johnson, “is that golf course is a hard golf course. The score should be regarded as one of the best ever. They were fighting it out all day. If you don’t hit good shots at Royal Troon, you’re making double-bogeys. It’s an amazing score — and under that pressure.”
Even Nicklaus, who lost to Tom Watson in the famed “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry in 1977, was impressed by the Stenson-Mickelson duel. Watson and Nicklaus each shot the same score through 54 holes at Turnberry, including third-round 65s. Watson prevailed with another 65 to Nicklaus’ 66 in the final round.
“Our final round was really good,” Nicklaus said. “But theirs was even better.”