In a compelling head-to-head contest that matched the infamous “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977, the 40-year-old Swede produced a breathtaking record-breaking performance to finish three shots clear of 2013 winner Mickelson, with another American JB Holmes a further 11 strokes back in third place after the last round became a two-horse race.
Stenson is the first player to claim the Claret Jug with a closing 63 – it contained 10 birdies after starting with a bogey – and just the second in the game’s four majors after Johnny Miller, who achieved that feat when he was crowned US Open champion at Oakmont in 1973.
His winning 20-under-par 264 total is also the lowest in the majors, beat the previous best at Royal Troon, set by Justin Leonard in 1997, by eight shots, and is also a new best in this event in relation to par, beating Tiger Woods’ tally at St Andrews in 2000.
“It hasn’t quite sunk in yet, but I’m very happy and very proud of the way I played,” admitted Stenson, who, ironically, had finished second to Muirfield three years ago in his previous best performance in golf’s most prestigious events.
“It was a great match with Phil. It seemed like it was going to be a two-horse race, and it was all the way to the end. I knew he wasn’t going to back down at any point, and in a way that makes it easier for myself.
“I knew I had to keep on pushing, keep on giving myself birdie chances and he wasn’t going to give it to me, so I had to pull away. I’m just delighted I managed to do that with a couple of birdies at the right time on the final stretch.
“It’s not something you want to run around and shout, but I felt like this was going to be my turn. I knew I was going to have to battle back if it wasn’t, but I think that was the extra self-belief that made me go all the way this week.”
Russell Knox finished as leading Scot, closing with his best effort of the week – a 69 – to end up alongside world No.3 Jordan Spieth. “I go home for a week and I try again,” said Knox of his next assignment, the US PGA Championship, which starts at Baltusrol in New Jersey on Thursday week. “I played one practice round here and that seemed to work out so I will probably do the same again.”
It will be the 31-year-old’s final throw of the dice in his bid to secure an automatic spot in Europe’s side for the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine in September.
“Obviously the Ryder Cup is important to me, but the FedExCup is now my goal,” insisted Knox. “I am in a great position in the FedExCup and I would love to stay where I am or move up.
“I have never made it to East Lake (venue for the Tour Championship in the US), but I have got a pretty good chance to do it now. That is my main goal.”
Host club member Colin Montgomerie avoided finishing last of the 81 players who made it to the final two rounds after parring the last six holes in his closing 76. He now turns his attention to this week’s Senior Open at Carnoustie, where a win would get him back into this event at Royal Birkdale in 12 months’ time.
“If I can take something from this today, it’s that I found something on the 13th, so with six holes to go – it was about 66 holes late.”