As I watched the final round of the British Open get played out between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson, it became clear that something special was happening.
Phil birdied the first hole while Henrik bogeyed, but then Henrik made three birdies in a row. And then Phil made an eagle to pull within one again.
For the best players in the world, making birdies and eagles isn’t really a big deal. And it isn’t super rare for those players to enter a zone where every swing is effortless and the hole looks huge. Phil can tell you about the handful of times it really felt like everything was flowing, and he was playing at the absolute peak of his abilities.
But I don’t think people realize just how rare it is to see two players going head to head in the same pairing—two of the best players on the planet, playing at their highest level and doing it under the greatest pressure.
When in sports have we seen that?
The only time I can think of anything like it in my time is the 2008 Wimbledon final, when the second-ranked Rafael Nadal beat No. 1 Roger Federer in five sets. That match took five hours, and Nadal won just five more total points than Federer. It’s been called the greatest display of tennis of all time. We’re still talking about the Duel in the Sun, between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson at Turnberry almost 40 years ago, because it was one of those historically great moments.
I think that’s what we just saw at Troon.
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 22, 2016
Think about it from Phil’s perspective. He missed setting the all-time major scoring record by a single shot in the first round—and did it by missing a putt that looked like it was in the center of the cup. He held the lead all the way through until late in the third round, and started Sunday trailing by a single shot. On Sunday, all he did was shoot a bogey-free 65—his lowest Sunday round ever in a major championship. It’s almost a cliche, but he was playing like a machine. But it wasn’t enough against a player who made 10 birdies and tied the final-round major scoring record himself.
In my practice, I help athletes recognize the inevitable pressure that comes with performing on the biggest stages, and give them tools to cope with that pressure. Henrik Stenson had never won a major in almost 20 years of trying, and had every reason to be the player that couldn’t deal with the size of the moment. But after that opening bogey, he never showed a hint of choking. I felt like I was watching something almost spiritual—a player finding the zone and staying in it, shot after shot after shot.
It was truly a shame that somebody had to lose.
But somebody did. If you’re Phil, what do you take away from a week when you shot a score that would have won virtually every other major ever played—but in this case, lost by three?
You don’t take it as a loss.
What Phil proved—to everybody, but more importantly to himself—is that it’s still in there for him. He has the game to win majors, and it’s a matter of taking what he had at Troon to Baltusrol for the PGA.
Let the tournament get in the way of machine.