SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – It’s one of the game’s great ironies, right there alongside comprehensive pace-of-play policies and a simplified Rules of Golf.
Henrik Stenson is neither stoic nor aloof, be it on or off the golf course, yet was long ago saddled with the wildly inaccurate sobriquet Iceman.
It’s a nickname one would normally associate with a person who is remote and guarded, and yet the Swede and newly minted major champion is neither.
On a bad day at the golf course he can be downright volcanic, although in fairness those heated episodes have become the exception in recent years. On any day off the golf course he can be brilliantly subtle, like on Friday at Baltusrol after a second-round 67 temporarily lifted him into the lead at the PGA Championship.
Asked how different he feels this week after having won his first major championship two weeks ago at Royal Troon: “I’m 6-foot-2 normally, but I guess I feel 6-foot-3 walking around out there,” he smiled.
Quizzed if his status as a major champion could impact those trying to catch him on Sunday: “I don’t know if I can scare anyone except myself,” he shrugged.
And, the clever coup de grâce, if he planned to approach the final round any differently than he did earlier this month at Royal Troon: “I think a 63 on Sunday would work pretty well here, too,” he laughed, “Sixty-four I can guarantee, but no 63.”
If the game has appeared easy for Stenson of late he’s come by his swagger honestly, having played his last seven major championship rounds to a 66.71 scoring average and hitting 81 percent of his greens in regulation during that span.
For a guy who played his first 41 majors looking like a teenager struggling with algebra, the answers seemed to come so easily at Royal Troon, where he outdueled Phil Mickelson coming down the stretch in what was an instant classic.
Technically, Stenson will tell you that his turnaround at The Open was the byproduct of better ball-striking, more confidence in his driver and one of the best putting weeks of his career. Of course he would say that, because anything deeper would require a level of self-examination that he’s probably not entirely comfortable with.
“It’s all about the melon, isn’t it?” Stenson’s longtime swing coach Pete Cowen said in Scotland. “If it’s a dark gray, he’s fine. But if it’s a dark green, he’s in trouble.”
For two days at Baltusrol he’s been the picture of calm, unfazed by a rain delay early Friday morning that pushed tee times back 45 minutes and the kind of start that in the past might have led to a broken golf club.
But after starting his round with two bogeys through his first four holes, he rebounded with an eagle at the par-5 18th (he started his round on No. 10) and added two birdies at Nos. 1 and 3. By the time he was finished he’d eased his way to his second consecutive 67.
“It might not feel as easy as it sometimes looks, if it does look easy,” he admitted. “It's always a question for me to work hard at what I need to do and focusing on the right things. But it definitely helps a lot when the mind is clear on what you're doing.”
What he is doing is impressive. With his “old trusty” 3-wood he’s tied for 17th in fairways hit, fourth in greens in regulation and 10th in proximity to the hole at the PGA. He could improve his putting with just four putts converted from outside of 10 feet for the week, but that’s always the case and he’s proven his ball-striking can mitigate any damage caused by his putter.
Although winning back-to-back majors is uncharted territory for Stenson, he’s not entirely unfamiliar with the concept of riding momentum.
In 2013, he won the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship to claim the FedEx Cup and finished with a victory at the DP World Tour Championship to win the European Tour’s Race to Dubai all within a two-month span.
“I think I'm a hard worker,” he said. “I work a lot on my game, and I think when I get it in good order, I have been able to keep it going for quite some time and have some long stretches where I've been playing well.”
Earlier on Friday, Martin Kaymer talked about the importance of keeping the voices in his head positive when the conditions are difficult like they were at Baltusrol to start a wet and windy day; but beyond this week’s Grand Slam finale that’s the story of Stenson’s career.
“If there were any voices, I guess I managed to get rid of them,” he smiled.
Despite the misplaced nickname, the voices in Stenson’s head are always there, the difference this week is they are telling him to make the most of his current form.