TROON, SCOTLAND—In championship golf it’s said Saturday is “moving day.” The expression refers to the contestants knowing that only 36 holes remain in a given event and need to assert themselves by shooting a low round in order to position themselves for the final round.
In Saturday’s 3rd round of the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon, those chasing 2nd round leader Phil Mickelson and his closest pursuer—Henrik Stenson—certainly did some moving—backwards.
With just 18 holes to play it appears that unless something extraordinary happens The Claret Jug will either be going to Mickelson for the 2nd time in three years or to Stenson for his first major championship triumph.
Phil started the day with a one stroke lead but it was Stenson who came to play early—birdieing three of the first four holes. Mickelson was nowhere near as sharp as his opening and second round play, but his pluck at being able to get the ball into the hole whenever critical moments arose was nothing short of brilliant.
Stenson would falter later in the outward nine with two bogeys at the 6th and 8th holes. Through the opening nine Mickelson had re-established a one stroke cushion.
Royal Troon is known for its stern finish and the two competitors separated themselves from the rest of the field. Mickelson made two birdies against two two bogeys—making Houdini-like par saves at the par-4 12th and at the closing hole with a greenside bunkers explosion to 6 feet and then dropping the putt.
Stenson was clearly in command of his swing—two key birdies—the 2nd coming at the par-3 17th when Mickelson’s par putt from 18 feet missed meant a two-shot swing elevating the 40-year-old Swede to the lead. A fine chip and putt at the final hole preserved the cushion and means the two will once be paired for the final round Sunday.
Given the weather conditions on Saturday’s 3rd round the two combatants played solid golf when called upon. Mickelson’s round of one-under-par 70 was nowhere near the crisp play of the first two rounds but it was clearly worth appreciating given Lefty’s penchant for sometimes failing to hold himself together when his game has not been nearly as sharp. For Mickelson, a second Open win would push him to six career majors—tying him with the likes of Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino. He also would be the third-oldest major champion behind Julius Boros (48) and Tom Morris, with whom Mickelson shares a birthday (June 16) 109 years apart. The 1861 Open was held in September.
Stenson’s play only got sharper as the back nine proceeded. Approach shots at the two par-3 holes on the inner half of half set up birdie opportunities. Scoring a three-under-par 68 was a fine follow-up to the sensational 65 he scored in round two. It also means Stenson will now sit atop a major championship leaderboard going into the final round for the first time in his career. Clearly, an unfamiliar position but one the Swede quite rightly relishes. His best previous finish in any major event came in 2013 at The Open Championship at Muirfield when he took the runner-up position solo behind none other than Mickelson. Turn about would make for a fine redemption.
Stenson had his third straight round in the 60s—no one has ever won at Royal Troon with all four rounds in the 60s—and is at 12-under 201. He is trying to become only the eighth player dating to Old Tom Morris in 1861 to win his first major after turning 40.
The closest pursuer beyond Stenson and Mickelson is American Bill Haas—six shots back at 207. Sitting one shot further back is Englishman Andrew Johnston—the man with the big belly and beard who broke par for the third consecutive day. USA golfer J.B Holmes is in solo 5th, at four-under-par for the championship.
The separation of Stenson and Mickelson is somewhat reminiscent of the classic 1977 “Duel in the Sun” battle at Turnberry in The Open when legendary heavyweights Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus broke away from all others with Watson eventually prevailing by one over the Golden Bear—eventually finishing 11 shots ahead of 3rd place finisher Hubert Green.
The weather forecast will likely be more of the same—cool winds have swept over the famed links at Royal Troon and rain showers are expected from time to time. Nothing like vintage Scottish weather indeed. No one thought Mickelson had the game to make himself a final round contender but he stands just 18 holes away from only adding considerably to his laudatory golfing credentials.
Stenson realizes winning a major championship at the home of golf in Scotland would be a thrill of a lifetime. He also understands such moments may never come his way again so taking advantage of the opportunity in Sunday’s final round is only more imperative. The final round beckons.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.