NORTON, Mass. – For the past few years, Henrik Stenson was viewed as a once-elite player whose game, sadly, had largely deserted him.
Thanks to a torrid stretch of golf this summer that reached a zenith Monday under gray skies at TPC Boston, the Swede has officially ditched that label and once again taken his place among the world’s best.
Closing with a 5-under 66 amid soggy conditions, Stenson cruised to a two-shot victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship for his first PGA Tour title in more than four years, and moved to sixth in the world rankings.
“It feels great to get (a win) here this week,” said Stenson, who finished ahead of Steve Stricker while tying the tournament scoring record of 22-under 262. “There’s never a bad time to win a golf tournament, I know that much.”
Beginning the day two shots behind overnight leader Sergio Garcia, Stenson rebounded from a bogey at the second hole with a string of three straight birdies on Nos. 4-6 to take sole possession of the lead. As the Spaniard continued to struggle, Stenson increased his advantage to three shots with a birdie at No. 8 before rain temporarily stopped play, and would not relinquish his spot atop the leaderboard for the balance of the day.
“It was a tough start for all of us in the final group, we all dropped a couple shots early,” he noted. “I guess I was the one that bounced back the best.”
Few players have as firm a grasp on both the highs and lows that the game has to offer as does Stenson, who moved to as high as No. 4 in the world following his win at The Players Championship in 2009. After a dry spell across the subsequent two years, though, Stenson slipped to as far as 230th in the rankings and questioned whether he could ever regain his old form.
“2011 was a really poor season by any standards,” explained Stenson, who was ranked 133rd in the world exactly one year ago.
His meteoric rise back up the rankings, however, has surprisingly been faster than his previous decline. Still in need of an invitation to the Masters this past March, the 37-year-old played his way into the top 50 in the world thanks to a runner-up finish at the Shell Houston Open, earning a trip down Magnolia Lane in the process.
Little did he know, that was only a precursor of what was to come.
Stenson fell just short of a playoff at the Scottish Open in July, tying for third behind Phil Mickelson, before again finishing behind Mickelson at the British Open the following week. That success was followed by another runner-up at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, which led to a tie for third at last month’s PGA Championship.
Though the late-season stretch has been as taxing as it has been successful for the Swede, he explained after the final round that his string of high results has helped to fuel his game during a period where he has often felt physically drained.
“When you’re up in the hunt, you keep going. It’s the Duracell bunny style,” Stenson quipped. “You just keep on going, and when you have a chance to win you’re going to try your hardest.”
Among the best ball-strikers in the world, Stenson entered this week ranked first on the PGA Tour in GIR percentage – a position that was further bolstered by his effort at TPC Boston, where he reached a career-best 61 of 72 greens in regulation.
Despite his tee-to-green prowess this week, though, the title was essentially clinched on a hole where he failed to give himself a birdie putt.
Bunkered at the par-4 17th with a two-shot lead, Stenson deftly clipped the ball from soft sand and watched it trickle into the hole for an unexpected birdie, his sixth of the day.
“I had a good lie in the bunker; I thought I was going to leave a 4-6 footer for par,” said Stenson, whose two-shot margin of victory was secured despite a three-putt par at the home hole. “That made the walk up 18 a little bit easier.”
After spending the summer trying to chase down many of the world’s best players, Stenson will now head to the BMW Championship as the one being chased. With his first career trip to the Tour Championship secure, he will tee it up at Conway Farms’ in two weeks as the newest leader of the FedEx Cup standings.
According to Stenson, becoming the target of the other 69 players still in the running for the season-long title is a burden he’s more than willing to bear.
“I’ve always been a pretty good front runner; I always liked to think that the other guy is going to have to play better than I do,” added Stenson, whose advantage over world No. 1 Tiger Woods is a slim 14 points. “I’m just going to continue to try to play my best, and that’s gotten me a very long way.”
Despite his consistent appearances on leaderboards this summer, Stenson had previously been unable to hoist a trophy – a fact for which he claimed earlier this week he had no regrets.
That all changed Monday, erasing any lingering sense of disappointment and adding yet another highlight to his already impressive comeback season.
“I’ve been playing really well and they’ve been won by some great players in great ways,” he said of his recent close calls. “Today was my turn.”