PITTSFORD, N.Y. – In running shoes and without a golf club in sight Henrik Stenson wandered his way about Oak Hill on Monday with all the urgency of a retiree waiting on an early bird special.
“Just had a stroll around. Checked out the lines and where to hit it,” Stenson said. “Just trying to conserve a bit of energy. I have a busy couple of days behind me so I figured I’d walk it once and then maybe play nine on Tuesday and Wednesday or maybe just 18 tomorrow.”
Seems about right that the hottest player in golf not named Tiger or Phil needed a slow-down day – turn off, tune out, check out.
Stenson’s fast track back into the top 15 in the world ranking began in the spring when he tied for eighth at Bay Hill and second to D.A. Points a week later at the Shell Houston Open to play his way into the top 50 (42nd) and earn a spot at the Masters.
Since then he’s played his way back onto the A-list of golf’s elite players, starting with his tie for third at the Scottish Open and consecutive runner-up finishes at the Open Championship to Phil Mickelson and last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to Tiger Woods.
Not bad company for a player who bottomed out, statistically speaking, early last year when he ballooned to 230th in the world following a dismal 2011 on both sides of the Atlantic divide. He finished 166th in PGA Tour earnings in ’11 and 136th on Europe’s Race for Dubai money list.
Since those dark days, Stenson has climbed to 11th in the world ranking, the highest he’s been since March 2010, 12th on the FedEx Cup points list and first in European Tour earnings.
“I’ve made a great run in a month’s time at three of the biggest tournaments that we have,” he said at the PGA Championship. “That’s going to show up in the world ranking. That’s very pleasing.”
To truly gauge the climb it’s important to put the tumble in perspective.
Consider that in 2009 when he bombed 3-wood to victory at The Players Championship his resume already included a World Golf Championship (2007 Accenture-Match Play) and he was on the short list of players most likely to win their first major.
He came close in 2008 at the Open Championship (T-3) and was a distant third in 2010 at St. Andrews, but that’s when things started to become difficult for the Iceman. Hitting fairways became a challenge (in 2011 he ranked 163rd on Tour in driving accuracy) and he failed to qualify for the 2010 and ’12 European Ryder Cup teams.
Slowly, methodically, he made his way back to relevancy. No short cuts, no quick fixes, just hard work and the belief that the talent remained unchanged, only the methods needed to be adjusted.
“It’s been a long-time progress, long-time work that’s paying off. You never know when you’re going to get it. Obviously, I’ve got a lot in one month here but there’s no point in being satisfied. I have things that I’m working on and trying to improve,” Stenson said. “It’s just nice to be back to where I know I can be when I’m playing well.”
Still, Stenson said with a piercing glare, “work in progress.”
In practical terms, Stenson’s play – specifically over the last month – has had the added benefit of solidifying his schedule for not just the rest of this season but for 2014 as well.
He plans to play all four FedEx Cup playoff events before taking a month off to rest for his season-ending push in Europe – a run that will include six events in seven weeks with stops in Dubai, Asia and Turkey.
The hardest part of Stenson’s run has been finding ways to conserve his energy now that competitive demands have supplanted professional necessity.
“It’s very pleasing to make that push because at the end of last year, I played two in Europe, then straight to Sea Island (McGladrey Classic in Georgia), then Shanghai. It took me like six days to find my head after that one,” he said. “When you’re jumping across the world with six-hour time differences it’s easy to watch from home. Sooner or later you’re paying a price for that.”
Right up there with jetlag among life’s certainties was Stenson’s belief that his competitive swoon would not last, talent and determination have a way of making certain of that. He just made it look as easy as a Monday stroll around Oak Hill.