The uninitiatedwho watched Henrik Stenson on Sunday at the Players Championship may havegotten the mistaken impression that golf is an easy game and that the Stadiumcourse at TPC Sawgrass is a cupcake venue. Five back at the start of the finalround, Stenson strolled to a four-stroke victory, thanks to a bogeyless 66during which he hit 13 of 14 fairways, took only 27 putts and was 2 for 2 onsand saves. A lanky 33-year-old Swede known for his bone-dry sense of humor andtighty-whities (more on that later), Stenson beautifully controlled his golfball and his emotions while everyone around him was coming undone at theStadium, a house of horrors replete with sand, water, waste areas, pineneedles, pine trees and terrifyingly fast greens.
The carnage ismost easily summarized by the travails of two players Stenson blew away enroute to tying the record for the tournament's largest final-round comeback:Tiger Woods bogeyed four of his first 10 holes and labored to a 73, matchinghis worst score while playing in a final pairing; and amiable journeyman AlexCejka of Germany began the day leading by five strokes but frittered them allaway in a mere four holes as he went out in 42. So what was Stenson's secret tolapping a stellar field (and snagging $1.71 million from the PGA Tour's richestpurse)?
"The mindalways wants to play some tricks on you and there's somebody sitting on yourshoulder there coming into the back nine and you want to fight him off andstick to business and do the right things," Stenson explained in histypically loopy way.
It is the mentalgame that has defined Stenson's career, for better and for worse. As a rookieon the European tour in 2001 he suffered such a crisis of confidence that heconsented to what his former sports psychologist, Torsten Hansson, called"mental-toughness training." Among Hansson's unconventional drills washaving his pupil walk on a balance beam, blindfolded. Stenson needed threeyears to get out of his slump, but the payoff was substantial. Says Hansson,"He developed a toughness to handle all that tension and anger andfrustration, and now his mind is unbreakable." That was obvious during onemonth in 2007 when Stenson won the Match Play Championship and trumped Woodsand Ernie Els with a 72nd-hole birdie in Dubai.
May 17, 2009
The golf worldhas patiently been waiting for Stenson to build on those breakthroughs. AtDoral two months ago he achieved renown of a different sort by stripping to hisskivvies in an attempt to keep his clothes clean as he played a shot out of amuddy hazard. That led certain wags to declare that Stenson has the completepackage. "I got as much attention off that thing as from my results thelast 10 years," says Stenson. That will surely change after hiscommanding—and remarkably serene—performance at the Players.
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Sunday's scenario was too tantalizing. Tiger Woods wasin the final pairing, five back, just as he had been at Bay Hill in March, whenhis spectacular walk-off birdie seemed to indicate he was whole again afterknee surgery. But that patented rally has obscured the hard truth that Woods isstill struggling to return to his old self. Sunday's 2nd hole told the story: Asnap-hook off the tee was followed by a banana slice into a pond. Goodbye, golfball, and Woods's intimidating aura. Over the final three rounds he hit 44% ofthe fairways, and overall finished 40th of 70 players in greens in regulation.The really bad news is that, with the U.S. Open next month, even his magicalshort game won't allow Tiger to muddle through for four rounds at big, badBethpage.