The uninitiated who watched Henrik Stenson on Sunday at the Players Championship may have gotten the mistaken impression that golf is an easy game and that the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass is a cupcake venue. Five back at the start of the final round, Stenson strolled to a four-stroke victory, thanks to a bogeyless 66 during which he hit 13 of 14 fairways, took only 27 putts and was 2 for 2 on sand saves. A lanky 33-year-old Swede known for his bone-dry sense of humor and tighty-whities (more on that later), Stenson beautifully controlled his golf ball and his emotions while everyone around him was coming undone at the Stadium, a house of horrors replete with sand, water, waste areas, pine needles, pine trees and terrifyingly fast greens.
The carnage is most easily summarized by the travails of two players Stenson blew away en route to tying the record for the tournament's largest final-round comeback: Tiger Woods bogeyed four of his first 10 holes and labored to a 73, matching his worst score while playing in a final pairing; and amiable journeyman Alex Cejka of Germany began the day leading by five strokes but frittered them all away in a mere four holes as he went out in 42. So what was Stenson's secret to lapping a stellar field (and snagging $1.71 million from the PGA Tour's richest purse)?
"The mind always wants to play some tricks on you and there's somebody sitting on your shoulder there coming into the back nine and you want to fight him off and stick to business and do the right things," Stenson explained in his typically loopy way.
It is the mental game that has defined Stenson's career, for better and for worse. As a rookie on the European tour in 2001 he suffered such a crisis of confidence that he consented to what his former sports psychologist, Torsten Hansson, called "mental-toughness training." Among Hansson's unconventional drills was having his pupil walk on a balance beam, blindfolded. Stenson needed three years to get out of his slump, but the payoff was substantial. Says Hansson, "He developed a toughness to handle all that tension and anger and frustration, and now his mind is unbreakable." That was obvious during one month in 2007 when Stenson won the Match Play Championship and trumped Woods and Ernie Els with a 72nd-hole birdie in Dubai.
The golf world has patiently been waiting for Stenson to build on those breakthroughs. At Doral two months ago he achieved renown of a different sort by stripping to his skivvies in an attempt to keep his clothes clean as he played a shot out of a muddy hazard. That led certain wags to declare that Stenson has the complete package. "I got as much attention off that thing as from my results the last 10 years," says Stenson. That will surely change after his commanding—and remarkably serene—performance at the Players.
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