ORLANDO, Fla. – A few years back a group of on-air pundits were asked who would be the first Swede to win a major championship.
Someone picked Carl Pettersson. Another went with Jonas Blixt. Annika Sorenstam’s name may have also been mentioned in jest; it’s hard to remember exactly because of what happened next.
Henrik Stenson entered the "Morning Drive" studio for the next segment and glared at your scribe, a member of that misguided group, and said simply, menacingly even, “That was a mistake.”
As the golf world inches closer to the year’s first men’s major at Augusta National, Stenson’s admonishment is starting to feel more like foreshadowing.
On Sunday on a softer-than-Wonder Bread Bay Hill layout, the stoic-looking Swede didn’t win that elusive major or even a mid-major, but he certainly seemed to take a step toward breaking through that Grand Slam ceiling.
A half-world away Pete Cowen didn’t watch Stenson’s eventful final round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He didn’t see him squander a one-stroke lead late Sunday at Bay Hill.
He didn’t need to.
After 14 years and endless hours working with him on far-flung practice tees he knows the talent that burns within the 38-year-old. So instead, he watched the Man United-Liverpool tilt.
When it comes to Stenson, Cowen knows the fine line between victory and defeat is measured in the moments when things aren’t going his way.
“We like to say if he can keep his melon on he can win anywhere,” Cowen said.
Whether Stenson’s melon is squarely fused to his broad shoulders permanently is still unknown, as evidenced by his near-miss at Arnie’s invitational.
After starting the day with a two-stroke advantage, he dropped two behind the likes of Morgan Hoffmann only to forge ahead with birdies at Nos. 11 and 12.
That’s where the line became blurry. It’s the moment when he and Hoffmann, who was paired with Stenson, were put on the clock by a PGA Tour rules official on the 15th hole.
It was the second time the group was subjected to the pressures of a stopwatch, and will be documented as the moment Stenson three-putted from 45 feet at No. 15, and then he needed three more from the fringe at the par-5 16th hole. For a player who had recorded just two three-putts his first three days it was the metaphorical fork in the road.
“It’s hard when you don’t feel like you can take the time you need,” said Stenson, who would par the final three holes to finish a stroke behind API winner Matt Every. “I just don’t see the point.”
Widely considered a “five-tool” player, it’s Stenson’s ability, and at times inability, to deal with adversity that has covered the divide between consensus world-beater and would-be champion.
It’s why when Stenson rang Cowen past midnight on Wednesday about a swing that had been blown out of position by winds that buffeted the pro-am, the swing coach calmly worked his man through the moment.
“There is one fault that he has with his swing and one fault only,” Cowen said.
The two discussed the esoteric elements of Stenson’s swing. Essentially, Cowen walked him through the mechanics of “getting pressure on the ball.” Put another way, predictable contact creates repeatable results, and Stenson responded with three consecutive rounds in the 60s.
There was no sense of urgency for either Stenson or Cowen because when it comes to the golf swing he is the quintessential Swede, unflappable and detail driven.
It’s an advantage Stenson has come by honestly after a career dotted with peaks and valleys yet defined by quality with Tour victories at a World Golf Championship, The Players and two FedEx Cup playoff stops.
“He’s been through two adverse periods and that has given him confidence to know he can handle anything,” said Cowen, referring to Stenson’s swoons in 2003, when he drifted to 502nd in the world, and 2012, when he dropped to 222nd. “His caddie [Gareth Lord] said that if he keeps his head we’ll have chances every week.”
So far in 2015 on the PGA Tour Stenson has largely played to that script, finishing fourth in his first two starts of the season and runner-up on Sunday at Bay Hill.
It’s likely why Stenson took the long view following his near-miss at Bay Hill.
“My goal is to play as good as I can, be up in contention as many times as I can and the more times I’m there the more tournaments I will win,” Stenson said. “It’s still good practice to feel the heat and be out there in contention today.”
But for those who know Stenson, and what he is capable of, it’s not practice that he needs if he’s going to finish his major quest.
“He’s good enough to win anything, the thing is staying patient,” Cowen said.
Whether he maintained that patience on Sunday at Bay Hill is open to interpretation, although he didn’t break any clubs like he’s done regularly in his career, most notably at the 2013 BMW Championship, but he may have broken some china with the Tour official with the quick second hand.
What isn’t open for discussion is Stenson’s status as the clear second favorite, behind a slow-starting Rory McIlroy, heading into the Masters.
“I think Stenson has played his way to being a favorite,” said Ernie Els when asked about the possible contenders heading into the year’s first major next month at Augusta National.
He also moved to No. 2 in the World Golf Ranking with his bridesmaid showing at the API, but then Cowen didn’t need to see any of that to grasp his man’s status as a major championship conversation starter.
And now the rest of the golf world is learning it, one misguided pundit at a time.