With a chilly wind blowing and rain drops spitting from the blue-gray sky, Royal Troon Golf Club doesn’t look like the setting for sentimentality.
The site of this year’s Open Championship sacrifices charm for challenge and tenderness for toughness. It’s the links golf version of a heavy-duty dump truck, ruggedly effective at what it does.
And yet there sit 40-year Henrik Stenson and 46-year old Phil Mickelson atop the Open Championship leader board with 18 more wind-tossed, rain-spattered holes remaining.
Stenson, who leads Mickelson by one stroke, has won tournaments around the world but he’s never won a major championship. Mickelson has five major championships on his Hall of Fame resume but he hasn’t won anything since his throat-catching victory in the 2013 Open Championship when he shot 66 on Sunday at Muirfield.
It’s possible someone other than Stenson or Mickelson will win at Troon on Sunday but Bill Haas is six off the lead in third place and Andrew “Beef” Johnston is seven back in fourth.
For Stenson, the slyly funny Swede who tears at the ball with each swing, a win would feel like a lifetime achievement award.
For Mickelson, another major at the age Jack Nicklaus was when he won the 1986 Masters, would be another captivating story in a career painted with big moments.
“There’s only one thing that matters (Sunday),” Stenson said. “I know he’s not going to back down, and I’s certainly going to try to not back down either. So it should be an exciting afternoon.
“He’s one of the best to play the game in the last 15, 20 years for sure, and it’s going to be a tough match. But I’s looking forward to the opportunity. I’ve worked hard these first three days to put myself in this situation and, once again, going to try my hardest tomorrow to finish the job.”
If you’re into links golf and all that comes with it, this Open Championship has delivered like a firm slap on the back.
The weather Saturday was such that tournament officials decided not to cut or roll the greens prior to the third round and a handful of pins and tees were adjusted to accommodate the gusts coming in off the Firth of Clyde.
After Friday’s rugged afternoon when rain and wind whipped almost viciously across Troon at times, Saturday was gentle by comparison. It was chilly enough to demand at least two layers, sometimes three, but it was mostly dry.
“The wind makes it a bit testy but it’s absolutely perfect,” one local said.
“A nice summer Saturday,” his friend added.
At home, we’d call it a fine late-autumn afternoon to lay on the couch and watch football.
Troon has pushed the game’s best players to the breaking point.
Rory McIlroy literally broke a fairway wood Saturday when he slung the offending device to the ground after slapping another shot sideways.
Jordan Spieth hasn’t figured out the green speeds yet, though the ball rolls about like it does on the runner in your hallway. Rickie Fowler made a quadruple-bogey eight Saturday and Dustin Johnson, on the edge of contention briefly, killed his momentum with a triple bogey at the harsh par-4 11th , which plays between an active railway line and a swath of gorse that’s scarier than Andrew “Beef” Johnston at the buffet line.
A moment here to appreciate Johnston, who won earlier this year for the first on the European Tour and has become something of a cult hero with his bushy brown beard and a physique that suggests not every professional golfer spends his off hours in the gym. He sits fourth, seven behind Stenson.
On Friday, some fans were waving hamburgers at Johnston as he made his way past them. He’s blessed with a sense of humor (he has “Beef” stitched into the back of his caps) and he joked with a television reporter Friday evening that he would probably have a Caesar salad for dinner.
He didn’t. He had a pizza.
“It was like a 10-inch pizza. It wasn’t that big,” Johnston said. “It wasn’t like a 20-inch,win-a-T-shirt-if-you-finish-it type of thing.”
If Troon has reminded the game’s guiders of anything, hopefully it’s how terrifyingly charming a 100-yard par-3 hole can be. Troon’s eighth, nicknamed the Postage Stamp because its green is about the size of one, is brilliant in its simplicity.
The best par-3s in the game tend to be the shortest – longer doesn’t mean better – and Troon’s eighth is exquisite. It looks as if a person could throw the ball on the green from the tee but miss it short, left or right and ask for the marmalade because you’re toast.
Now comes the final day. For most of the first three days, Mickelson owned this Open Championship. It changed late Saturday afternoon. It could change again Sunday.
Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post magazine (www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to the Charlotte Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.