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Henrik Stenson straightens up his game

Henrik Stenson knows better than most how quickly fortunes can change in golf.

His performance in The Players Championship, where he putted for birdie on all but two holes in the final round and turned a five-shot deficit into a four-shot victory, beefed up his credentials as the No. 5 player in the world.

Stenson also knows the lean times. The 33-year-old Swede smiled behind those intimidating sunglasses as he spoke earlier in the week about the time he played St. Andrews without having any idea where the ball was going.

“I’m standing on the 17th hole, and as I get ready to hit my tee shot, I can see my caddie out of the corner of my eye checking in his pocket to make sure he has a ball for the provisional,” Stenson said with a laugh. “That’s when you know it’s bad.”

It was so bad that eight years ago at the European Open, when he had to hit three drives before he put one in play, he walked off at The K Club after nine holes and told his playing partners they would be better off without him.

He was 25 and wondered if he had a future in golf.

Stenson doesn’t delve into too many details about those dark days now. There is no need for that.

The Players Championship was his 10th career victory, and the most recent wins have come against some of the best fields. There was Dubai in 2007, when he went head-to-head against Ernie Els and topped him and Tiger Woods, who finished third. He won the Accenture Match Play Championship two years ago against the top 64 in the world.

The Players had the strongest and deepest field in golf, on a course that was as firm, fast and frightening as a major.

And the sweetest victory of all might have been in 2006, a trophy he had to share. Stenson holed the winning putt for Europe at the Ryder Cup, celebrating from the clubhouse balcony of The K Club, the course that represented his low point.

“It’s quite a long time back,” Stenson said. “Obviously, I was in a bad spell there and I played really bad. But I felt like that’s way in the past. Everybody in this game kind of falls back at times. It can feel like the easiest game on the planet, and then it can be the hardest. That’s just the nature of the game, how things can swing around.

“A lot can happen in a short period of time.”

That was the case Sunday on the TPC Sawgrass. Stenson was in a six-way tie for second, the same position as Tiger Woods, trailing Alex Cejka by five shots with only 18 holes to play.

Seven holes into the final round, thanks in large part to a painful collapse by Cejka, Stenson was tied for the lead. Then came a 3-wood that went just over 300 yards, setting him up for a crack at the green on the 587-yard ninth hole, and a two-putt birdie for the lead.

He never gave it up, pouring it on with four birdies on the back nine for a 66 that matched the best score of the day—the other 66 was from Aaron Baddeley, who was first out Sunday morning in the calm—and was nearly 7 1/2 shots better than the field.

“Pretty incredible,” Woods said. “We all know he’s got all the talent in the world to do this. It was just a matter of time before he put it together. To do it on this stage was pretty impressive.”

It was the next best thing to a major, which is Stenson’s next goal.

He moved to No. 5 in the world ranking with the victory, a spot he occupied two years ago after winning the Match Play. Players ultimately are judged by the majors, and that’s where Stenson has been lacking.

Stenson was the co-leader through 36 holes at Medinah in the 2006 PGA Championship until a 73-72 weekend. He did not record a top 10 until last year at Royal Birkdale when he tied for third in the British Open, although he was six shots behind Padraig Harrington and never had a serious chance of winning. He tied for fourth a month later in the PGA Championship, but was not a serious threat.

Maybe this victory will help change that.

“I felt in the past it was a little bit annoying not to have a top 10 in a major, and I definitely got to put an end to that question with a third at the Open, and then the one I really felt like I had a good chance to win going into the last day was the PGA Championship,” he said. “It didn’t happen that day, but it’s all about putting yourself in that position.

“Obviously, if I can play as well as I did today, I surely can do it on a Sunday at the majors.”

His next chance is the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, a beastly public course in New York. Stenson has never seen the public course, but he has heard it requires power, and he has that.

Stenson mostly relied on a 3-wood at Sawgrass because the fairways were so fast, and he got a chuckle walking up the 18th fairway in the first round upon seeing a video board showing that he had hit his tee shot 318 yards.

Someone mentioned that Bethpage is a good course for a guy who can hit a 3-wood that far, and this brought another smile to Stenson.

“I understand that,” he said. “I’ll try and hit it 320 by that time.”

Best of all, he knows where it’s going.


May 12, 2009

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