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Sporting Life

Sporting, sublime duo elevate each other as well as their sport

A Swedish Viking met an American conjurer in Scotland and together they produced modern art on a 138-year-old canvas. This was imagination used, nerves fought and not a single one of 98 bunkers found. This was, on the final day of the Open, an exhibition in accuracy (79 per cent of fairways hit, 89 per cent of greens) from a Swede who once had the driving yips. This was golf as a tense masterpiece. No, this was simply sport as a privilege to watch.

This was golf which made you consider giving up what you do on Sundays because that does not truly qualify as golf. This was golf that was classy, for Henrik Stenson high-fived fans and Phil Mickelson fist-bumped them, two men not afraid of each other, the course, the moment or of having fun.

This was riveting because it was rare, two athletes who were not just brilliant at the same time but kept forcing each other to excavate their insides for even more brilliance. This was fencing with different blades and boxing with a single glove, this was Federer v Nadal on a longer grasscourt and Prost-Senna on a trickier track.

Stenson started with a bogey, followed with three birdies. Mickelson started with a birdie, paused for two holes and then sank an eagle. Sport is mostly decided by errors but on Sunday it was determined by excellence. On the 18th a birdie by Stenson was almost inevitable. What else do we expect from a fellow whose shirt says BOSS.

This was a sporting day for the wrinkled and greying, for the patient and persevering, for those whose chance has not yet come and for those who believe they are not yet done. Golf's Big Four (Spieth, Day, Johnson, McIlroy) had a collective score of three under and an average age of 27 and Mickelson-Stenson had a total score of 37 under and an average age of 43. Somewhere in Florida, a 40-year-old legend might feel his Major door is not closed.

This was the right nation to win the Open, for America has won over 260 Majors in men's golf and Sweden - which has 25 major wins in tennis - had zero. This was also - with due respect to the grand Mickelson - the right man to win it, for in the stuffy and badly dressed planet of golf it is fitting that the oldest Major was won by a man who once did impressive work while undressed.

This was the right nation to win the Open, for America has won over 260 Majors in men's golf and Sweden - which has 25 major wins in tennis - had zero. This was also - with due respect to the grand Mickelson -the right man to win it, for in the stuffy and badly dressed planet of golf, it is fitting that the oldest Major was won by a man who once did impressive work while undressed.

Indeed, the second-most famous picture of Stenson - him and the Claret Jug is now first - involves him wearing nothing but a white glove and white underwear. At least they were matching.

In a well-told story, his ball went into the water in 2009 at an event in Doral and, appalled by the thought of dirtying his clothes, he decided to shed them and waded in. His caddie then, Fanny Sunesson, was unperturbed. Possibly because she is also Swedish. And when it comes to golf they are the most fascinating of folk.

The LPGA's Maria Hjorth was a champion curler, Helen Alfredsson cursed fluently at bad shots and Pia Nilsson co-created Vision54, a golfing philosophy which states that "if it is possible for a player to birdie any given hole on the course, then why not every hole?" Indeed. Most intriguing, of course, was Jesper Parnevik who dieted on volcanic sand and, as Sports Illustrated once wrote, "entered a golf tournament, then drove to the wrong city".

Considering Stenson's act of cool that day it was only appropriate that he was clad in Swedish apparel - to be precise, the Bjorn Borg line of underwear. The tennis player was referred to as the Iceman and so is Stenson, except that Borg's intensity was hidden under white clothes while the golfer is more revealing.

Stenson breaks clubs, is droll - "I'm not afraid of mosquitoes, I'm more afraid of bears," he said of Rio - misplaced his swing, lost money to a swindler, found his form, won titles but never surrendered perspective. On his Twitter account his descriptor reads: "Lisa, Karl & Alice's dad, Emma's husband and a professional golfer on the Euro and PGA Tour".

This is what we need, a character at 40 trying to raise his game rather than McIlroy, a fine and young leading man, who carelessly says: "I didn't get into golf to try and grow the game". This is also how golf should end, with an American and Swede with their arms around each other, fathers and foes dressed in dark shades and also civility.

This is what sport should strive to be, relentless and unforgiving and always with a winner and loser, for that is the heartbreaking beauty of it all. What else is the point of competition but to celebrate talent and yet separate it and then to return next week to resume the challenge?

We feel sympathy for Mickelson, of course, and yet Stenson, who had delivered the most telling blows all day, offered one final lesson via the microphone. At the time of his greatest triumph he told us of a friend who died of cancer and to whom he dedicated his victory.

This was only fitting, a gentle reminder that out there on golf's undulating landscapes only contests are lost and never life itself.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Sporting, sublime duo elevate each other as well as their sport'. Print Edition | Subscribe