Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson squashed the rest of the field Saturday at the Open Championship, setting up a battle between a pair of over-40 players who are totally in command of their games at Royal Troon.
Stenson and Mickelson showcased their strengths on moving day as they moved away from the remainder of the field at the 145th playing of golf’s oldest major championship.
In the end, it was a magnificent 4-iron by Stenson at the par three 17th that set the table for a two-shot swing, his birdie from about 20 feet and Mickelson’s bogey from a poor chip put Stenson on top at 12-under par after a brilliant round of 68 in difficult conditions that again featured rain, winds and chilly temperatures. Mickelson’s 70 left him a shot back going into Sunday’s final round which looked for all intents and purposes to be a two-man war on the shore of the Firth of Clyde.
“Unless someone shoots a silly number, yes,” Stenson quickly admitted. “As of now, I think it would be a battle between Phil and myself,” said Stenson, who has a 54-hole lead in a major for the first time and is looking to become the first man from Sweden to win a major championship.
Mickelson didn’t have his best stuff and admitted it afterward. “I didn’t hit it very well today. I was out of rhythm. I hit it good in spots but I fought hard on a tough day to shoot under par. It could have easily gotten away and I was a little out of sync. You just fight. I just wanna get the ball in the hole, I don’t care how,” Mickelson said, describing his day-long battle.
It was a world-class short game clinic by Mickelson who mustered just one birdie on the front nine while Stenson got off to a great start. “It was a tough day and I got off to a flying start through the first five holes,” said Stenson, who won at the BMW Championship three weeks ago. “I played really solid the last six-seven holes and made a couple of birdies coming in.”
Stenson’s strength is his iron play and it showed. He kept putting the pressure on Mickelson the entire round but Lefty refused to give in. Mickelson made an all-world par at the 12th when his tee shot nearly went in the gorse left of the tee. He hit an incredible second then hit a wedge from 66 yards to 10 feet and made the incredible par save.
Mickelson took a two-shot lead at the 13th when he holed a 20-footer for birdie but he lost a shot with a three-putt bogey at 14.
Stenson trailed by a shot after Mickelson birdied 16 but then came the birdie-bogey swing at 17.
It will be difficult for anyone to threaten the two, unless there’s a 64 in the making.
Bill Haas (69) will start six behind Stenson, five back of Mickelson but he’s never had a top five finish in a major.
Andrew “Beef” Johnson, shot 70 and is playing in only this third major and he’s alone at five-under.
J.B. Holmes was four-under after shooting 69.