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TROON, Scotland – Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson went toe-to-toe for four hours Saturday in the British Open, trading pivotal par saves and four lead changes in the cold wind and occasional rain at Royal Troon.
And now they get to do it again, this time with the claret jug at stake.
Stenson had a pair of two-shot swings on the inward par 3s and got up-and-down on the 18th for a 3-under 68, the second straight day that no one had a better score. It gave the 40-year-old Swede his first 54-hole lead in a major, by one shot over Mickelson, who is going for his sixth major.
Links golf can deliver some strange finishes, though this had all the trappings of a two-man race on Sunday.
Stenson had his third straight round in the 60s — no one has ever won at Royal Troon with all four rounds in the 60s — and was at 12-under 201. He is trying to become only the eighth player dating to Old Tom Morris in 1861 to win his first major after turning 40.
Mickelson, winless since he lifted golf's oldest trophy at Muirfield three years ago, had a 70.
Lefty had made only three bogeys in his last 103 holes at Royal Troon dating to 1997, and a 25-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole gave him a two-shot lead. Stenson answered with a 5-iron to 6 feet for birdie, and Mickelson three-putted for bogey. They were tied.
Mickelson regained the lead with a pitch to 4 feet for birdie on the par-5 16th, only for the Swede to answer again, this time with an all-out 3-iron into the wind on the 220-yard 17th hole to 20 feet. Mickelson fell behind when he missed the green to the left, and failed to hole a par putt from 18 feet.
Everyone else felt like mere spectators,
Bill Haas, a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour who is rarely heard from at majors, was solid with a 69 and alone in third. It's his highest position ever in a major, yet he was six shots out of the lead. Another shot back was Andrew Johnston, the Englishman with a big belly and beard to match who goes by "Beef." He broke par for the third straight day with a 70.
It was unlikely to matter.
This was all about Stenson and Mickelson, two powerful players with different styles and different credentials.
"Unless someone goes out there and posts a silly number," Stenson said. "But as of now, I would pretty much think it's a battle of Phil and myself. "I know he never backs down and he's one of the best players to play the game. I'm just going to try my hardest to keep him behind."
Mickelson finished three shots ahead of Stenson three years ago at Muirfield when Lefty closed with a 66 in one of the best final rounds of a major. He hasn't won another tournament since then, and at age 46, it appeared his time was running out.
Troon is where he first figured out the secret to links golf, and he has managed to avoid big numbers all week. He has made only four bogeys in 54 holes as he goes after a sixth major that would put him alongside Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino.
He also would be the third-oldest major champion behind Julius Boros (48) and Morris, with whom Mickelson shares a birthday (June 16) 109 years apart. The 1861 Open was held in September.
Mickelson didn't swing as well as the first two days. His short game, as always, was magic. No save was more unlikely than the 12th, where he pushed his tee shot toward trouble and was fortunate the ball deflected off a piece of prickly gorse. He had just enough room to hammer it up the fairway, and then played a shot rarely seen in links golf — instead of running it up along the ground, he used his quick hands to produce enough backspin to bring it back down a ridge to 6 feet from the hole.
It was a battle, and Mickelson held his own.
"I was under par on a difficult day," he said. "It could have easily got away from me. I found a way to hang in there."
That wasn't the case for so many others.
U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson was working his way up the leaderboard until a shot into the gorse on the 11th led to a triple bogey. Johnson made two double bogeys the day before. Soren Kjeldsen of Denmark reached 8 under par until a double bogey from thick grass on the 10th, and three more bogeys over the next four holes.
Rickie Fowler started well until an 8 on the 11th hole.
Mickelson-Stenson was the main event from the time they teed off. And it was like that when they finished. It was reminiscent of the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot, when Davis Love III and Justin Leonard shared the 54-hole lead and were seven clear of everyone else.