ORLANDO, Fla. – The PGA Tour’s Iceman can be a difficult read.
This isn’t an aloof-Swede deal so much as it is the emotional distance Henrik Stenson tends to travel in relatively short periods of time.
This is, after all, the same player who destroyed a driver and a locker a week after winning the 2013 Deutsche Bank Championship. It’s equally significant that a week after that implosion at the BMW Championship, he won the Tour Championship and collected the $10 million FedEx Cup.
It’s the same guy who told the media on Friday at Bay Hill that “I kind of kicked myself in the butt” after a particularly slow start on Day 2.
Since that motivational pep talk on Friday, Stenson has played his last 27 holes in 12 under to add a measure of star power to an otherwise nondescript field at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
At 38, Stenson will tell you he has worked to control his emotions, and for the casual observer the Iceman seems to live up to his nickname. What’s hidden from prying eyes behind a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, however, is a competitor who can still run as hot as a ’67 Ford Mustang.
“I’m kicking myself in the butt all the time,” smiled Stenson, who finished his round with a 19-footer for eagle on 16 and kick-in birdie on 18 for a 6-under 66 and a two-stroke lead. “Today, I was going about my business, didn’t get off to a fast start but it was still OK. I kept it in play and took my chances when I got them.”
For tournament officials, the third-ranked Swede is a much-needed addition to the marquee and a sign, however faint, that things may be returning to normal on the PGA Tour.
The parity that has gripped the Tour this season can be summed up with a single sound bite – in 18 events there have been 18 different winners.
Or, for the more visually motivated, a once over of the Arnold Palmer Invitational leaderboard would also suffice as a paradigm of parity.
In order, Morgan Hoffmann – a 25-year-old Tour sophomore whose best finish this season was T-17 at Doral – looms just two strokes behind Stenson after a third-round 71. He's followed by Jason Kokrak – an almost 30-year-old who considers his back-to-back state high school championships his biggest thrill in golf – Matt Jones, Ben Martin, and Matt Every.
It's the collision of balance that has overtaken golf at the highest level and a Bay Hill layout softened by less-than-ideal conditions, an agronomic necessity that helped vault Stenson to his 16-under total.
There hasn’t been a winner that far under par at Arnie’s Place since the event went by the Bay Hill Classic (1987).
Rory McIlroy seemed headed in a similar direction as Stenson, moving to within one shot of the lead at 12 under before three consecutive bogeys dropped the world No. 1 a touchdown off the lead.
“There were parts of the round that were good. I have to concentrate on that and focus on the positives and try and take those into tomorrow,” said McIlroy, who seems to have lapsed into Masters mode following a slow start to his 2015 season on Tour.
So the challenge of catching Stenson will fall to the likes of Hoffmann and Kokrak, the latter of whom tied for the round-of-the-day with a 7-under 65.
“I’m going to make birdies, they’re going to make birdies. I’ll just try to make the best of it,” said Kokrak, who will head out in Sunday’s penultimate group with Jones. “The gameplan stays the same.”
After two dominant days to begin the week (66-65), Hoffmann took a similarly high-minded approach to his final-round pairing with Stenson, and Every certainly has the track record at Bay Hill, having won last year’s API.
But the numbers on this are rather straightforward.
Combined, the five players within three strokes of the lead have three Tour victories, one less than Stenson, which leads one to concede the likelihood of at least one Tour trend ending on Sunday.
The last eight 54-hole leaders on Tour all failed to close Sunday with a victory, whereas Stenson is a perfect 1 for 1 with the three-quarter advantage.
That the Swede has also started his Tour year with back-to-back fourth-place finishes would also tilt the scales in his favor. But it’s his improved demeanor on the golf course that may be the most telling sign of how far Stenson’s game has evolved.
And that’s not to say Stenson is any easier to read.
In his signature style late Saturday, as he spoke with the media, Stenson’s train of thought drifted from blithe to blunt in a single answer.
“When they asked me on Thursday if I wanted to be announced from Florida or Sweden, of course I took Orlando for support,” he laughed before adding, “the golf god doesn’t know what’s happened the last three days. Hopefully I tell it good [on Sunday]. That would be a good closing.”
It seems the dichotomy of the Iceman doesn’t stop on the golf course.