ACHIEVING consensus on something as subjective as golfing excellence is almost impossible. That said, I’m going to go out on not one, but two limbs in saying that not only was the battle between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson in the final round of the 2016 Open Championship the greatest head-to-head battle golf has ever seen, but that Stenson’s round that day holds sway as the greatest individual round to date.

I acknowledge that this statement slaughters more than one sacred cow, most notably the place that the Jack Nicklaus vs Tom Watson duel at Turnberry in 1977 holds in golf folklore. But taking into account the occasion, conditions, difficulty of golf course and the quite astonishing scoring exhibited on the day, I’m circling the wagons and remain resolute in my defence.

In shooting 63 that Sunday afternoon, Stenson propelled himself into golfing royalty, joining the elite groups of both Major winner, and those who have shot the lowest round in a Major championship. That he was able to do this whilst being chased down by one of the finest players of the past 20 years merely serves to put an exclamation mark on the achievement.

The Claret Jug - a trophy well earned by Henrik Stenson
The Claret Jug – a trophy well earned by Henrik Stenson

I spent some time with Stenson during my time on tour, and can say that there is as much to admire about the person as there is the sportsman. Our paths first crossed at European Tour School in 1999, where we were drawn together for the first two rounds of the six-round odyssey. We were both unsuccessful in gaining a card, and ended up spending most of the following year on the Challenge Tour.

You didn’t need to be Nostradamus to see from the beginning that Stenson had a serious future. Tall, athletic, and with the ability to generate explosive clubhead speed, he had a natural aptitude for ballstriking that set him apart. His flight was majestic – a powerful, high, penetrating draw that few golf courses had a defence against. He could be erratic, and in the early days often was, but the raw material he had to work with was of an ore grade higher than most.

Few were surprised to see him make his mark on European golf in the early 2000s. However, his inexorable rise up the world rankings hit a Titanic sized iceberg in 2009 when the Swede lost a significant proportion of his life savings in the Stanford ponzi scheme scandal. Alan Stanford was committed to 120 years in gaol for his duplicity, but the loss, purported to be in the vicinity of $US10 million, also sentenced Stenson to a dark place.

A precipitous tumble in the world rankings followed. To his credit, he came back bigger and better than ever, claiming victory twice on the US PGA Tour in 2013 on the way to winning the Fed-Ex Cup and its $10 million bonus.

But until further notice, his career will be defined by a performance at Troon that was, quite simply, extraordinary. I played The Open at the same course in 1997. At my physical peak, and playing particularly well in the lead up, the course made a meal of me. On the back nine in round one, there were four par 4s that I didn’t reach in regulation. On the par-3 17th, I hit driver. At the 18th, after a well-struck drive, my ball didn’t reach the cut portion of the fairway. It seemed to me at the time to be as hard a course as possibly existed. Had someone suggested that shooting 20-under there in a four-round championship was possible I would have recommended they seek help from someone trained in psychiatry.

On the same golf course, with rain and wind being factors for much of the day and out on his own in the lead, Stenson played a breathtaking round of golf. At 40, he was also staring down the fact that despite a lucrative and successful career, this may be one of a few remaining opportunities to grasp one of the only titles that ensures true golfing immortality.

Add all these factors together and it is more than realistic to say that Stenson’s final-round 63 is the greatest round of golf in the history of the game.

Bravo Henrik. Bravo.