By Martin Blake/Golf Australia Organisation
The Open Championship at Royal Troon is headed for a two-man shoot-out between a legend of the game and one who aspires to that status yet who so far has failed to achieve it.
Sweden’s Henrik Stenson overtook Phil Mickelson at the 17th hole today to take a one-shot lead into the final round, but already, there was a sense that this duel had much more to offer.
They had played together in the final group and jousted all day, from the moment that Stenson birdied the first to join Mickelson in the lead, to the 14th, where there was a two-shot swing in Stenson’s favor, to the 17th, where the Swede finally took the lead.
At that long par-three, Mickelson’s tee shot flared left and for once, the man with the touch of genius could not get up and down for par. Meanwhile the Swede had hit a pure iron shot pin-high and he rolled in the putt from 5m to go from one shot behind to one shot ahead.
It was a buffer he clung to as they completed the 54th hole and they largely have it to themselves at 12-under and 11-under; third-placed Bill Haas is six shots back from the lead.
Stenson, 40, has never won a major and stands with Sergio Garcia, of Spain, at the head of those who have not. He has had many opportunities before, not least at Muirfield in 2013 when it was Mickelson who outplayed him.
But he sees this situation as a new chapter. “This is going to be more or less a match play situation out there and it will be fun,” he said.
“I’ve played a lot with Phil recently. We played at Augusta, we played at the US Open. We ended up playing last week in the third round and there’s been another couple at the Players. I enjoy his company. He’s fun to watch. He hits some spectacular shots and he’s a great competitor. I know I will need to bring out my best.”
Stenson’s two-under back nine was impressive given that everyone has struggled in the run home at Troon. Mickelson had to scrap today, carding a 70, admitting to unease.
“I was off today,” he said. “I didn’t have my best stuff. I was a little bit jumpy and my rhythm wasn’t very good. Today could have been a day that got away from me, but I kind of found a way to settle and hit some shots.
“I’d love to play the final round the way I did the first two and give myself a shot.”
Mickelson, 46, has won five majors to Stenson’s none. Between them, they have blown away the field including the so-called “Big Four”. None of Jason Day, who shot 71 today, Rory Mcilroy, who broke his three wood in two in anger, Jordan Spieth or Dustin Johnson has been prominent at Troon.
It has come down to two.