TROON, Scotland – The oldest major championship has a history of being kindly to the old guard of golf, going back to, well, the days of Old Tom Morris, who in the 1867 Open Championship set the record -- that still stands -- as winner of the most advanced age: 46 years, 102 days.
The trend is almost certain to perpetuate Sunday at Royal Troon with 40-somethings Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson having separated themselves from the field through 54 holes of the 145th Open Championship. Stenson, 40, is at 12-under-par 201 after a 68 Saturday, while Mickelson, 46, is a stroke behind after a 70. No one else is closer than six strokes.
Through the years, including some recent editions, the links of the Old World, with their hard bounces and hard weather, have had a soft spot for players 40 and older -- even much older. Most notable, of course, is the case of Tom Watson, who famously came within one stroke of winning the 2009 Open at Turnberry at the age of 59. The year before, 52-year-old Greg Norman, like Watson, held the 54-hole lead only to end up third as Padraig Harrington successfully defended his title at Royal Birkdale.
"I think sometimes the experience of so many shots over the years is a factor," said 49-year-old Steve Stricker, who tied for low round of the day with a 68. "Maybe our nerves aren't as good, but we know what to do. And sometimes that's good enough to compete."
In the case of Stenson and Mickelson, their skills have not deteriorated appreciably, and they are big, strong men. They are still long enough off the tee, though not in the crazy-long category occupied by the likes of Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy -- all who are 11 or more shots behind. They manage their games well and remain good iron players, evidenced by ranking second and fourth, respectively, in greens in regulation at Troon. And although their putting can be spotty, both are rolling it exceptionally this week. On Saturday, Stenson needed just 24 putts, Mickelson 27.
With his Open win in 2013 at Muirfield, Mickelson already is the fifth-oldest Open winner at 43 years, 35 days. Next on the list are Darren Clarke and Ernie Els, each whom were 42 with their victories in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Though Watson and Norman didn't enjoy the curtain call they wanted, another legend did. Ben Hogan was a month shy of 41 years old when he won his only claret jug at Carnoustie in his only appearance. It was the last of his nine major victories, and it completed his Triple Crown season.