The Open 2016: Henrik Stenson v Phil Mickelson was heaven sent

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
The Open 2016: Henrik Stenson beats Phil Mickelson in final-day battle

After so many negative headlines in the build-up, the classic Open duel between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson was just what golf needed.

The game's reputation had taken a battering by so many high-profile withdrawals from the Rio Olympics and Rory McIlroy's frank disdain for golf's return to the Games.

As a result, there seemed little sympathy for golf from the wider sporting public as play got under way at Royal Troon on Thursday and even as the championship developed in its early stages.

Thank goodness, then, for the epic contest between the Swede and the American, four hours of astonishing drama that showed the game at its magical best.

The momentum was traded not by nervous mistakes but by bewildering quality that must be regarded as some of the best play ever witnessed in the last round of a major.

If you had offered the defeated American a closing 65 on Sunday morning, he would surely have snapped off your hand. Yet it proved only good enough for a three-stroke defeat as Stenson sprinted for the line with four birdies in the last five holes.

For those who witnessed it, the 145th Open will live long in the memory. The only shame is that there were not more people watching.

The final group attracted large numbers of followers throughout their two-day duel, but overall attendance figures were down on the last time The Open was staged at Royal Troon.

The 2016 Open at Royal Troon
Inclement weather no doubt contributed to a lower attendance at Royal Troon

Back in 2004 Tiger Woods was at the height of his powers and more than 176,000 fans flocked to the Ayrshire links. Last week those numbers were down to 173,134 and this was despite lower-rate twilight tickets.

Scenes such as the disappointingly empty grandstands around the 18th that greeted Stenson and Mickelson as they marched up the last on Saturday evening gave the impression there were even fewer fans in attendance than the official figure.

It is a shame spectator numbers were slightly down and that there was no live terrestrial TV coverage in the UK, because this was an Open that deserved the widest-possible audience - and not just for the brilliance of the leading pair of protagonists.

There was so much more to enjoy, including the way leading stars like McIlroy, Jason Day and Danny Willett tussled with the worst of the weather.

The Open: Rory McIlroy breaks his club in anger on 16th hole

That those players who played early on Thursday and late on Friday were effectively blown out of contention by the elements raises the question of whether The Open - subject as it is to the vagaries of British seaside weather - should adopt a two-tee start like the US Open and US PGA Championship.

It would shorten the day and might limit the variance in conditions that is largely inevitable when play begins at 6.35am and does not end until around 9.30pm.

However such an alteration would mess with the tradition of The Open and you do that at your peril. It is a unique event and those long days are one of the factors that make the championship so distinctive.

Rather than a debate about the capricious conditions, last week will be remembered for the epic dubbed "High Noon at Troon".

And it wasn't the only memorable storyline. There was the emergence on the major stage of Andrew 'Beef' Johnston, whose jovial manner was so refreshing as he finished eighth. The heavily-bearded 27-year-old relished the attention his terrific golf generated.

It is laughable to equate the North Middlesex man with recent Wimbledon sensation Marcus Willis - as the Spanish Open champion, he has a far better sporting pedigree - but they do share an ability to engage with crowds.

Let's hope the elongated sound of "Beeeeef" becomes a regular refrain at major venues around the world in the coming years. He is just the sort of 'everyman' figure the game requires.

The Open 2016: Andrew 'Beef' Johnston "loving" fans at Troon

Now up to number 89 in the world, Johnston can now look forward to next week's US PGA at Baltusrol.

Yes, there really is another major as soon as next week.

It feels ludicrous there is such a short time between two of the year's most significant tournaments; we need more time to savour the drama of Troon before building to the last of the 'big four' men's events.

To use the analogy that caused a stir last week (when used to describe McIlroy), the PGA is the 'Ringo' of the majors and this scheduling does nothing to help elevate it from its standing as the fourth of four.

It has been brought forward to accommodate the Olympics, but at least at Baltusrol we will see the leading four stars - Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and McIlroy - before they disappear during the Rio competition.

None of the quartet enjoyed the best of times at Troon, although McIlroy responded to his harsh 'Ringo' tag to finish top of the 'big four'.

The Ulsterman ended a fractious tournament in good style to record another top-five finish in a major.

Henrik Stenson wins The Open

You would not put it past McIlroy to elevate his year from 'modest' to 'great' in New Jersey next week, but as The Open once again proved, it is folly to make predictions in majors.

No-one saw the Stenson/Mickelson showdown coming, but thank goodness it materialised into the most timely reminder of golf's greatness at the very highest level.

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