ATLANTA – In the last week, Henrik Stenson has broken a driver and a locker at Conway Farms, and flirted, however briefly, with breaking the course record at East Lake.
Not a bad news cycle for a guy who has played seven out of the last 10 weeks, but such is the dichotomy of the resurgent Swede. Having climbed from 230th in the world ranking in February 2012 to sixth, his resilience is rivaled only by his urbane ability to waffle between old habits and new hope.
On Monday, Stenson shattered his driver on his way to a tie for 33rd at the BMW Championship. He dismantled a locker before bolting town, and awoke Wednesday with so much pain in his left wrist that he couldn’t hold a toothbrush. A day later he found himself smiling atop the East Lake leaderboard following a 64 for the first-round lead at the finale.
“I just needed to realize the world is a good place again,” said Stenson, who was paired with Woods on Day 1 and clipped the FedEx Cup frontrunner by nine strokes. “I’m there now for sure, and I intend to stay there.”
Of course, the obvious follow-up question is how can a player who is two weeks removed from his first PGA Tour title in four seasons slip from the top of the mountain to the mental abyss so quickly.
“I can hear you don't have much experience with Swedes, do you?” he deadpanned.
Fair enough. But that still doesn’t explain an ailing golfer, both physically and mentally, who fixed things on the fly to the tune of 9 of 14 fairways (T-6), 15 of 18 greens in regulation (T-2) and 27 putts (T-1) in the span of three days.
Consider that Stenson spent Wednesday on the range testing a new driver – he went with TaylorMade’s new SLDR model, figuring, “(Breaking the old driver) was a blessing in disguise.” – and nursing a wrist that flared up two weeks ago before heading out onto a golf course he’d never seen in its entirety and going 6 under.
“It's always nice to play them, but it's not the end of the world if you can't,” said Stenson, who played the front nine on Tuesday and walked the inward loop to save his ailing wrist on Wednesday. “I got a good look at them, and a lot of holes seem to be pretty straightforward.”
In a related item, practice rounds across the PGA Tour have been declared overrated.
Stenson’s talent has never been in question. “I played with him a couple of times and thought, ‘How does he not win every week?’” said Paul Goydos.
Nor has his inability to overcome adversity (his current slump-busting run is the second of his career) ever been in doubt. Staying out of mental prisons, however, has proven to be something of a challenge.
“I’ve always been a bit of a hot-head, and it kind of builds up and eventually it goes over the limit,” he admitted. “For me, it comes down to being tired. I played so much golf. I played so well, and I just haven’t been able to get any rest.”
Sleep deprivation and a closing-round 74 at the BMW added up to Monday’s meltdown. In Stenson’s defense, he apologized to the locker-room attendants at Conway Farms before he left the property on Monday and offered to pay for any damages.
Few can close a chapter so quickly and effortlessly, which is perhaps Stenson’s best asset – beyond that nuclear driver and velvety touch on the greens.
The challenge now is avoiding similar burnout down the homestretch, if not East Lake’s rough. Since his runner-up finish at the Open Championship, Stenson has been in contention in all but two of his starts and the pressure, although he’s come by it honestly, is only mounting.
After starting the week second in the FedEx Cup ranking, Stenson is one of five players who are guaranteed to claim the $10 million bonanza with a win on Sunday at East Lake.
After a torrid start on Thursday – he birdied five of his first seven holes and didn’t need to make a putt over 9 ½ feet in that stretch – he cooled on the closing nine. A bogey at the 16th dropped him into a tie with Adam Scott, but Stenson hit his tee shot at the last to 4 feet for birdie to pull back in front.
All in all, an astounding rally considering where he was physically and mentally to begin the week, and a testament to a player prone to extremes but balanced enough to find the middle ground when he needs it the most.
“I’m really delighted with the change I made today,” he smiled before trotting toward the East Lake clubhouse, 54 holes away from breaking the FedEx Cup bank.