The prospect of Mickelson and Stenson going head to head for the Open Championship is an exhilarating one for those with no vested interest. This Saturday afternoon pairing brings box office to Royal Troon.
Round three will also be afforded two other marquee names who flirted dangerously with an early Open exit. Danny Willett and Jordan Spieth squeezed through right on the four-over-par cut line, the Masters champion worthy of special credit because of a converted 15ft putt on the 18th green. Spieth once more displayed his battling brilliance just when everything seemed to be going wrong. Even more impressive was the young Texan’s post-round comment. His half of the draw sheet has been by far the unluckier in respect of playing conditions, not that Spieth offered extenuating circumstance. Having been battered by the afternoon wind and rain, Spieth was pragmatic.
“We might have caught the rough end of the draw, that happens,” Spieth said. “I just tried to smile, tried to enjoy the fact that you don’t play in this often. You wish your score didn’t matter when you play in this. You wish this was just a round with your buddies, where you go into the clubhouse and have one or seven pints afterwards. It was a cold, heavy wind.”
Spieth conceded his “chances are likely finished” in respect of a maiden Open win. “I can’t blame my chances in this tournament on the draw,” he added. “I could certainly blame the draw if I was playing really well and I was at three or four under. But at four over par my game is not major championship-winning calibre.”
This championship will inevitably be remembered in part for Mickelson falling so agonisingly short of a historic 62. Should Stenson ultimately prevail, thereby scratching an itch of seven top-four placings in the game’s prime events, the Troon narrative will switch entirely. This nearly man would be afforded fresh standing. Sweden would have its first men’s major winner.
For now Stenson is cautious. So he should be; not only does his nine-under-par aggregate trail Mickelson by one but the 40-year-old knows better than anyone what pitfalls Saturday and Sunday can bring.
“My goal was to put myself in contention,” Stenson said. “I’ve done that halfway through. I’m 40. I’m not going to play in these tournaments for ever. I don’t have another 50 goes at them. It might be a dozen or 15 in total. So I better start putting myself in position and giving myself chances if I want to make it happen.
“We’ve got another 27 to play before it gets really interesting. So far, so good.”
Stenson’s second round of 65 was the epitome of composure in a high-pressure links scenario. He and Mickelson enjoyed the better side of this Open, owing to the tame conditions of Thursday afternoon, which continued into Friday morning, with dampness added. By the time round two entered its closing stretch, the wind whipped to its most ferocious level of the week.
Mickelson did not ever reach the heights of Thursday, despite looking like leading the field a merry dance when sitting at 11 under within only eight second-round holes. The American’s last victory came in this very tournament, three years ago. Stenson was unable to keep pace with a stirring Sunday from Mickelson at Muirfield. “What does Phil have? Five majors?” Stenson asked. “It’s going to be easier in that way. It’s always harder to push the first one over the line, I would imagine. But at the same time he’s six years older than me, so I should be a little stronger, shouldn’t I?”
A typical Stenson smile followed. As he left the course, grimace time ensued; Willett, Jason Day, Spieth and Rory McIlroy had to contend with horrendous elements: sideways rain. McIlroy posted a 71, Day a tremendous 70. Colin Montgomerie, Miguel Ángel Jiménez and Darren Clarke all made the cut to fly the veterans’ flag.
Mickelson is far too experienced to suffer from what Sir Alex Ferguson brands “a disease” – that is, complacency. Which is just as well, given Mickelson also has major champions in close pursuit; Keegan Bradley, Charl Schwartzel and Martin Kaymer. There are underdogs, too; Soren Kjeldsen, Tony Finau, Bill Haas and Andrew Johnston included. Zach Johnson, the defending champion, is only five from the lead. “It’s irrelevant,” said Johnson of what happened at St Andrews on this week in 2015. Others may think differently.
Kaymer is at three under, which in itself is no disaster. Yet one Friday hole, the 10th, was. The German has been plagued by chipping woes to such an extent that he must be mentally tortured, as highlighted again as he sat alongside the par-four’s green in two. Kaymer played one shot back to hit his own feet, another wildly across the green, barely moved the ball from dense rough and walked off with a seven. He looked in serious need of a cuddle.
So, too, did Ben Curtis. The 2003 champion accomplished something extraordinary on the 3rd by taking a 10, which included six shots from three different bunkers. Curtis did not hang around to offer post-round explanation, for which one could hardly blame him.
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