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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

'All in all, it's my finest performance': Defending champion Henrik Stenson on last year's Open victory

Almost 12 months on from his record-breaking victory at Royal Troon, the Swede reflects on that showdown with Phil Mickelson and time spent as the Champion Golfer of the Year.

Henrik Stenson of Sweden hits his tee shot on the first hole during a practice round prior to the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale on July 18, 2017 in Southport, England.
Henrik Stenson of Sweden hits his tee shot on the first hole during a practice round prior to the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale on July 18, 2017 in Southport, England.

Henrik Stenson was so determined to win the British Open last year that he had no idea how well he had actually played.

The Swede, until that point considered one of the finest golfers never to have captured a major, battled playing partner Phil Mickelson around Royal Troon late on Sunday, in a final-round match-up that many have since labelled the greatest duel in the sport’s history.

Stenson fired 10 birdies and shot 63. Mickelson carded a bogey-free 65 to come up just short. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, whose vaunted “Duel in the Sun” at the 1977 Open now had a genuine rival, even conceded that had been surpassed.

For Stenson, it just took a while to sink in.

“As focused and in the moment that I was the last four, five holes, I don't think I've ever been that on the golf course,” he said almost 12 months on, in a conference call organised by the PGA Tour. “It really gave me the answer what it means to be in the zone.

“I didn't even realise I made 10 birdies when I saw the recording. It was actually Phil that looked up on the scorecard and said, ‘Really? 10 birdies in the final round?’ It's just my finest performance in terms of playing and also mentally, to stay focused on what's important. To execute the whole round like that was really an achievement.”

Wasn’t it just? Stenson had been close to breaking his major duck before, finishing tied-third at the Open in 2008 and 2010, then second in 2013. He had top-three finishes at the PGA Championship, too, climbed to No 2 in the world rankings, topped both the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai standings in the same year. Yet a major continued to elude him. Sweden’s wait for a male major winner rumbled on.

Then Stenson went out and shot 63 to win by three. He recovered from a bogey on the first hole, when Mickelson replaced him at the top of the leaderboard. Once Stenson sank a 20-footer on the last for a 10th birdie, he had matched Johnny Miller for the lowest closing round by a major champion. His 20-under 264 was also the lowest 72-hole score in a major. Very much one for the scrapbook, then.

“I've been going through that one a few times since,” Stenson said. “It was obviously a childhood dream, a boyhood dream and a career dream come true being the Open champion, and winning it in the way I managed to win it was very special also.

“All in all, it's my finest performance, no question about it when you take everything into it. Just brings back nice memories talking about it.”

The mental souvenirs have been racking up since. As Champion Golfer of the Year, Stenson got to keep the Claret Jug until this week’s tournament, which tees off at Royal Birkdale on Thursday. He finished tied-third there nine years ago.

More recently, the world No 8 clearly enjoyed his time with the trophy, at one point even jet-skiing with the jug in tow. Successfully defend this week, and Stenson has promised to take it skydiving.

“Well, I can't say there's been a bad moment,” he said. “We've had some ... good talks and good evenings together. But the best evening would have had to be the eve of winning it.

“The guy who's kind of Mr Golf in Sweden, a Swedish golf commentator, it was his 50th Open Championship. Obviously even he had started to doubt if we were ever going to see a Swedish male win a major.

“I invited him to a little after-party and he got to drink out of the Claret Jug - that was a special moment for sure. And also sharing it with the family and friends. My daughter had some Coca-Cola and my son had some Sprite out of it, so there's been various drinks.”

Originally Stenson, whose base is in North America, kept the Claret Jug in his office or the kitchen, but a move at the end of the year meant it was rehoused on the living-room’s coffee table in his new home. Not surprisingly, it retained its allure.

“It's become a little bit of a family member for the year and it's going to be tough to give it back,” Stenson said. “I know Zach [Johnson] said the same last year. He posted a picture with him and the family, like ‘oh, it's time to hand it back’. I'm sure that's going to be some extra motivation to try to bring it home again.”