PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – At his best, Henrik Stenson was fearless.
We saw that in the first round of the WGC-CA Championship two years ago when he stripped to his underwear at Doral and played a shot out of the muck at the third hole.
Practically naked, he still looked invincible, a man who believed he could beat anyone anywhere at any time.
Stenson did just that in his torrid run back then. He beat Ernie Els by a shot and Tiger Woods by two shots winning the Dubai Desert Classic in 2007. He beat match-play dynamo Geoff Ogilvy in the finals of the WGC-Accenture Championship that same year. He beat Pete Dye’s diabolical TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course and golf’s deepest field at The Players Championship in 2009.
After winning here, Stenson moved to No. 4 in the world rankings.
It was a terrific climb, but it made for a hard fall.
The charismatic Swede arrives for this week’s Players Championship ranked 107th in the world.
He’s gone from invincible to nearly invisible, at least on leaderboards and even in The Players media guide, where he was inadvertently left out of the player capsules this year.
“I’ve been going through quite a long slump,” said Stenson, 35. “I’ve been struggling, technically and mentally, but I feel like I’m starting to pick the bones out, and I’m heading in the right direction.”
That’s Stenson, good humored with a brave face, wading into the muck to play the shot that’s been handed to him.
Playing practically naked, however, is a lot harder than playing figuratively naked.
“I think we’ve bottomed out,” says Pete Cowen, Stenson’s swing coach. “You might not see it right away, but give it time. If it’s not this week or next week, it will be soon.”
What happened to Stenson?
Why did his game get sideways?
“There are a lot of reasons,” Cowen said.
A decade ago, Stenson’s swing inexplicably left him. He became so desperate and confused sinking to 176th on the European Tour’s Order of Merit, he resorted to hitting shots with his eyes closed. He got so wayward back then, he walked off the course in the middle of a tour event because he couldn’t keep his ball in bounds.
Stenson fought back from that to become a dominant player. He rebuilt his swing with Cowen’s help. Stenson’s not nearly as sideways now as he was back then.
What’s happened this time?
A swing flaw crept Stenson’s game at the end of ’09. Last year, he contracted a mycoplasma virus in his lungs, plaguing him for two months of the summer.
But back before all of that, there was the Stanford Financial scandal.
Stenson was among the many victims when that news hit early in ‘09. He signed a three-year sponsorship deal with Stanford Financial a few months before the Security Exchange Commission charged the company with operating a “massive Ponzi scheme.” Stenson’s never said how much he has tied up in the company, only that “a big part of my own savings and investments” are in frozen accounts.
“He doesn’t like to talk about it, and he won’t talk about it,” Cowen says. “It’s been difficult, and it’s not over yet, but he won’t use it as an excuse.”
Ask Stenson about his struggles, and he points to his swing, to his confidence, to his driver.
“It’s the chicken and egg question,” Stenson said. “I’ve been a bit out with my golf swing, and when that happens, it leads to feeling insecure. You don’t know where to start your ball. If you don’t know where to start the ball, you don’t know where you’re going to hit it, and things start tumbling from there.”
Stenson sought out sports psychologist Bob Rotella for help. He also relies heavily on Fanny Sunesson, who is as much a mind coach as his caddie.
“Henrik’s such a good guy, has such a great personality, fun loving, very calm,” Rotella said. “We talked about how sometimes, you get so concerned about this or that, you don’t let yourself be Henrik. We’ve talked about Henrik getting back to being Henrik on the golf course.
“He’s in the best place I’ve seen him in quite awhile. He’s gotten clear in his head with his golf swing.”
Cowen helped there. A month ago, frustrated trying to identify exactly what changed in Stenson’s swing, Cowen locked himself in his office and did some serious detective work. He pored over video of Stenson’s swings. He pored over “hours and hours” of video.
Finally, Cowen found what he was looking for. He found a subtle manipulation in Stenson’s swing, a manipulation affecting Stenson’s transition from the backswing to the down swing that threw off the collaboration of club head, shoulders, arms and body. Cowen blamed himself.
“I missed that? How did I miss that?” Cowen asked himself.
Cowen said a swing is three dimensional, but the manipulation is difficult to see. He said the manipulation is especially difficult to detect in the limited two dimensions of video.
When Stenson won THE PLAYERS Championship, he hit a subtle draw. His bad shots become a hook now. He’s working at a more “neutral” ball flight.
The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass isn’t the ideal place to work out your swing. Waywardness is severely punished here, but Stenson says he loves the course and the feelings he gets returning here.
“I played my first Players Championship in ’06, and I immediately fell in love with the course,” Stenson said. “I’m sure that’s why I’ve had good success around here. When you like a course, when you feel comfortable on it, you raise your chances. I have my name here with all the greats who’ve won here in the past. It’s special to be back here.”
Stenson may have played his best round ever winning here in ’09. He was magnificent, closing with a 6-under-par 66, the only bogey-free round of a difficult day.
“The confidence I took out of this win was that if I could beat this field here, I could beat this field at a U.S. Open or British Open, if I put myself in position,” Stenson said.
This week’s all about confidence for Stenson, about putting himself in position to succeed again. It’s about fearlessly extricating himself from the muck once more. He knows the way out. He’s triumphantly escaped far worse patches of trouble.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMellGC