Date: July 18, 2016
Author: Mike Clayton

Clayton: When golf poetry transcends scores

Only rarely does a player shoot a score wildly beyond the imagination of the rest of the field.

Greg Norman’s second-round 63 at Turnberry in the 1986 Open Championship was one amazing round on a day when perhaps 66 was a believable score, but certainly not 63. Especially not 63 with a three-putt on the last green.

Johnny Miller’s 63 to win the 1973 US Open at brutal Oakmont was another score produced by a brilliant player with every part of his game touching ultimate levels of perfection.

The world marvels and the rounds become important parts of the history of the game.

In 1977 something extraordinary happened not so far from Troon, at Turnberry. The two best players in the world, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, cleared out from the rest of the field early in the third round and found themselves in a match where the scores almost became incidental to the gaining or losing of shots to a single opponent.

So brilliant is the golf you get the sense the men playing it walk off the final green almost unaware of the scores they have shot.

Watson’s pair of 65s on the weekend bested Nicklaus’ 65-66 and the third-place man, Hubert Green, came in a full eleven shots behind Watson. Green and the rest of the field had proved Turnberry was a difficult test and what became known as the Duel in the Sun was one of those extraordinary events when the game conspires to produce the fantastic.

So it was at Troon this week.

Unlike Watson and Nicklaus, Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson are not the game’s best players.

Not according to the rankings anyway. No matter, they were the best players on the planet for a weekend and their “Duel in the Gloom” of a wet and windy west coast Scottish summer will be long remembered as something as remarkable as the one at Turnberry almost 40 years ago.

There is a silly mentality often adopted by golfers who believe the worth of a golf course is its difficulty. High scores and a capability to withstand the assault of even the best players in the world is seen as a measure of architectural quality.

Of course difficulty alone is no measure of the worth of a golf course. Some of the very best pieces of architecture in the world – Swinley Forest, Sunningdale, Royal Melbourne, Cypress Point among many – are quite easy courses. The golf Stenson played to shoot 63 may well have been under 60 at Swinley Forest.

Troon is a hard golf course, especially its back nine hole when all but the 12th hole are played in a line back to the clubhouse into the prevailing wind. Stenson’s 63 was an unbelievable score.

What was almost more astounding was a five-time major champion could stand on the 55th tee of the Open Championship one shot behind a forty-year old without a major championship to his name, better the best score of all the players playing ahead of him by two shots and lose two shots to his playing partner.

Mickelson’s 65 was one of the great rounds in championship golf, but on this extraordinary day it left him both disappointed and disbelieving.

No doubt he will reflect on the day and understand the world marvelled at the golf he and the champion put on show. It will be recognized as one of the great days and those who think only winners are remembered might well reflect Nicklaus’ role at Turnberry has never been forgotten and nor will Mickelson’s play this week at Troon.

The day, though, belonged to Stenson, Sweden and its first male major champion.

It was a long time coming, but it was worth the wait.