07/17/2016

In 1994, Peter Forsberg scored the game-winning goal in a shootout as Sweden beat Canada to win hockey’s gold medal at the Winter Olympics. It was an iconic moment for a sports mad nation that had yet to deliver a signature victory. Forsberg’s move was memorable—he approached slowly and just as he moved to the left, he took one hand off his stick and let the puck slide into the net on the other side as the goalie flailed hopelessly beaten.

While Forsberg went on to a Hall-of-Fame NHL career, his highest achievement came in the aftermath of those games when Sweden immortalized the famous goal on a postage stamp.

On Sunday, Henrik Stenson, the 40-year-old Swede delivered another postage-stamp worthy performance at Royal Troon, home of the Postage Stamp. Stenson tied the Major Championship record with a 63 and the Open Championship record by finishing 20-under-par, on his way to his, and his country’s, first major in men’s golf.

To do that, Stenson had to outplay fellow veteran Phil Mickelson over a spectacular 18 holes. Mickelson made the first headlines Thursday when he opened with a 63, lipping out the final putt in his bid for 62.

By Saturday evening, Stenson caught and passed Mickelson. The man seeking his first major led the 5-time winner and 2013 British Open champion by one stroke, -12 to -11. The rest of the field was playing for third place. That was confirmed not long after the pair, a combined 86 years old in this new age of the sport, teed off. Mickelson started 3-under through four. Stenson followed a bogey at the first with three consecutive birdies to keep pace. And he never stopped. He collected 10 birdies along the way against two bogeys.

Screenshot 2016-07-18 10.10.34

Stenson’s scorecard for the 2016 Open

Mickelson played terrific golf, as well. After an opening birdie, he nearly chipped in at the second. Vintage Mickelson, smiling, swashbuckling was here. It culminated in a bogey-free 65, Mickelson’s second best effort at a major following his torrid start Thursday.

And second best defined his day. He would have needed a 62 to force a playoff, 61 to beat Stenson straight up. This wasn’t a case of choking Phil. Far from it. If he can hang his hat on any of his 11 second place finishes, this is the one he fully earned.

As Stenson and Mickelson played their own game of “can you top this?” the rest of the field fell back. J.B. Holmes claimed third at 6-under, and astonishing 11 back of Mickelson, who finished 17-under.

We were all better for it. Stenson’s game has long fit links style golf. His ball-striking is impeccable, especially with low stingers off his irons and 3-woods that never seemed to stop rolling. Stenson endured the brief weather issues by beating the wind. And suddenly, he couldn’t miss with the putter. Stenson put it all together this weekend when the moment called for it. So many have called him the best player without a major for so long (a title Mickelson was familiar with) that he slowly drifted out of the conversation. There was a thought it was never going to happen.

Which is to say, no one expected this. At least, not how it happened. Stenson even birdied the Postage Stamp, the 123-yard par-3 eighth hole, to leave no doubt about who the champion golfer of the year was.

 

“As Stenson and Mickelson played their own game of “can you top this?” the rest of the field fell back.”

 

Now, will his home country immortalize Stenson like it did Forsberg? Perhaps. Sweden has produced countless talented male golfers (let’s not forget Annika Sorenstam’s impact on the sport), but never before a major champion.

Stenson has done a lot in golf, good and bad. But he always had fun. So it was Sunday. He is a worthy first-time winner.