Ian Baker-Finch is 55 years old, he began playing in major championships in 1984, and he has seen and competed against some of the greatest golfers in the sport’s illustrious history.
But nothing compares to what he saw between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon on Sunday.
“That was the most remarkable final round in a major championship I’ve ever seen and the greatest duel between two players that so far distanced themselves from the rest of the field,” the CBS golf analyst and 1991 Open Championship winner said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “Just incredible.”
Mickelson shot a bogey-free, 6-under-65 on Sunday but lost by three strokes to Stenson, who hit 78 percent of his greens, made 10 birdies and shot an 8-under-63, tying Johnny Miller’s for the lowest final-round score by a major champion. Stenson drilled his final putt from 20 feet and finished with a 20-under-264 to win his first major.
Putting has never been Stenson’s strong suit, but it was this past weekend. Why?
“It’s so hard to give a tangible reason,” Baker-Finch said. “Sometimes you have it, sometimes you drag each other along like they did. They just sort of expected each other to hole each putt and make great shots, and they both kept doing it. Sometimes, just deep down inside, you say to yourself, ‘Hey, I’m going to keep doing this.’ You have days where every putt you look at is going in the cup. You remember there on that second nine he walked off after a couple of long putts, knowing when it was halfway there that he holed it. I hate to say it, but it was Tiger-esque. It was like nothing could go wrong. Just incredible stuff.”
Mickelson, meanwhile, fell shy in his bid for a sixth major championship, which would have tied Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino and put him one major away from Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Gene Sarazen, Harry Vardon and Sam Snead. Mickelson has now finished runner-up in 11 major championships.
“Everyone knows that Phil Mickelson is a great player,” Baker-Finch said. “But I think he goes underrated mainly because for a decade he was playing against Tiger Woods at his best. Had he been in any other decade, I believe Phil Mickelson would have won three, four, five more majors (or more). So to have five to his credit, he’s had 11 seconds now, including six seconds at the U.S. Open in major championships – it’s an incredible career. Over 40 victories on the PGA Tour. Many other international victories to his credit as well. So yeah, he is a player that’s been winning since 1992 and keeps himself fit and strong. Very smart guy, great competitor, goes for broke. When he has a chance at winning, he goes for it, which is a great quality. So I think he’s a way, way underrated champion of his era.”
He’s also one of the most inspirational players golf has ever seen. Well, sometimes.
‘When he’s inspired for whatever reason, he plays great,” Baker-Finch said. “The rest of the time, I think he’d rather be home with Amy and the kids, to be honest. That happens when you get to that age. You don’t want to be out there all the time. He plays a limited number of events. He’s going to play in his 11th Ryder Cup this year, which is just amazing. That’s 20 years of Ryder Cups. He just plays equally as good as anyone else in the world, at times. He still has that great ability, and when he has a chance to win, he goes for it. You look at all the great champions. When the going gets tough and they have a chance, they’re competing and they have a chance to win, they putt better. They play better. And when they’re uninspired and not competing and not in with a chance to win, it’s like, ‘What am I doing here?’ I think we see that a lot with the great champions as they get a bit older.”
Baker-Finch thinks that Ernie Els, who has won the U.S Open and British Open and has finished in the top three at the Masters and PGA Championship, has another major win or two in him, even at 46. Sometimes, though, Els looks like he’d rather be at home on his boat with his family.
“I totally understand,” Baker-Finch said. “They’re not doing it for the money anymore. They’re doing it for the wins.”