The game of golf has experienced a significant population reduction for one of its most prominent species. With his Open Championship win at Royal Troon, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson has exited the “best player to never win a major” (BPTNWM) club.
Stenson continues a trend that has seen the last four major winners be breakthrough champions. (Including Masters champion Danny Willett on a list of best players is stretching the margins.) But if you want to push back a little further in time, Jordan Spieth’s Master’s win means five of the last seven winners were maiden major champions.
Sometimes these crossover moments can be clearly seen up ahead in the headlights. Not only had Jason Day been applying to the Grand Slam Club for a few years before he won the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, but he had threatened earlier that summer at both Opens. This year’s U.S. Open winner, Dustin Johnson, had flirted with major wins enough times that many players felt it was a matter of when, not if, DJ would join the major club.
Stenson’s win falls into a different category. He was edging his way into the company of Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomery, gentlemen who have passed the age of 40 and face diminishing prospects of escaping the BPTNWM club.
It was interesting that following his three-stroke win over a very game Phil Mickelson he said he sensed the timing was right this year in Scotland. “It’s not something you want to run around and shout, but I felt like this was going to be my turn.” That is despite the fact that his last six major appearances featured no top 10s and a very sketchy WD at Oakmont. (Stenson was 10 over par on his second round at Oakmont with two holes to play Saturday morning when he discovered minor neck and leg issues that let him out the side door.)
Then again the Swede may have anticipated the same good fit at Troon a very astute friend of mine had told me at the start of the week. With anticipated temperatures suited to a Scandinavian, rain and wind favoring a schooled European and, most importantly, green speeds that made putts look like the emergency brake was on, longtime golf writer David Mackintosh was looking for some way to parlay his hunch into an online prediction.
Even Mr. Mackintosh couldn’t have foreseen how Stenson would get his hands on the Claret Jug. A championship that saw Mickelson curl one out to miss a historic 62 on Thursday ended with Stenson curling one in to match Lefty’s opening 63 and obliterate Open scoring records. His 264 total erased Greg Norman’s 267 at Royal St. George’s in 1993, and his -20 was one better than Woods put up at St. Andrews in 2000. That minus-20 also matched Jason Day’s all-time major under-par score at Whistling Straits in 2015, and I suspect even Day would give the nod to Troon in degree of difficulty. For the week, Stenson played all eight of his nines in red numbers on a course infamous for the wind bias between the outgoing and incoming holes.
Immediate comparisons were drawn to the Open’s famous “Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson at Turnberry in 1977, but there were subtle differences between the two. At Turnberry Nicklaus never trailed in the final round until the 71st hole, and the drama at 18 was more dramatic with Watson needing to respond to a magnificent birdie by the Golden Bear to pick up the win. And the historic cache of Tom and Jack eclipses Phil and Henrik.
For the Stenson, the Sunday final was a classic of the artist vs. the mechanic. The 40-year-old Swede was virtually flawless from tee to green, missing only three fairways and two greens by small margins. His only two bogeys in the round were three-putts, and he never really played a chip shot, save on the par-five 16th with his third.
Mickelson, who now is only second to Jack Nicklaus for runner-up finishes in majors with 11, turned in a clean card with no bogeys. His 65, with five missed fairways and four missed greens, was a continuation of the scoring magic he displayed all week. His 17-under total sits behind only three other winning totals: Tiger twice at -19 and -17 and Nick Faldo at -18. It would have tied him with Rory McIlroy’s 17-under two years ago at Royal Liverpool.
Because of the Olympics, the next opportunity for a player to exit door the BPTNWM club is only a week away at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol. And five of the last seven winners of the Wanamaker Trophy were first-time major winners. Sergio, are you taking notes?
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.