PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — If not for his victory at the Players Championship, Henrik Stenson might have lived the rest of his days only as the guy who stripped down to his Bjorn Borg boxer briefs to free his golf ball from a pile of mud.
On that day two months ago at the CA Championship at Doral, Stenson proved that he was willing to do anything to save strokes, including standing next to a water hazard, disrobing in front of a gallery and slashing at his ball in tighty-whities.
On a steamy Sunday at the Players, Stenson took the more traditional route along a golf course: middle of the fairway, center of the green, golf shirt and pants secure.
With his peers free-falling around him, the 33-year-old Stenson claimed the biggest win of his career, firing a bogey-free, final-round 66 for a four-shot win over England’s Ian Poulter. It was the first time the flag of Sweden was raised over TPC Sawgrass, Pete Dye’s mind-bending track built over swampland.
“I’ve always said it’s been one of my favorites since I came here in ’06 the first time,” Stenson said afterward. “It suits my eye, suits my game. I just like the whole concept of risk and reward. You see pretty clearly what you can do, and if you pull off the shots, you’re going to get rewarded, and if you don’t, you’re going to be in trouble a lot of times. It’s a very fair and square golf course in that sense.”
That Stenson handled himself so well on a track defined by its hazards speaks to his remarkable growth as a player. At the 2001 European Open, he walked off the course in the middle of the round after a brutal bout of the driver yips. Stenson once recalled hating the sound of his caddie rustling through his golf bag, searching for a ball after Stenson had hit another tee shot out of play.
“It’s quite a long time back, and obviously I was in a bad spell there,” Stenson said. “That’s way in the past. Even though everybody in this game kind of falls back at times, it can feel like the easiest game on the planet and then it can be the hardest. That’s just the nature of the game.”
Stenson’s dark days in golf seem lost to history now, gone as he has steadily pieced together one of the best resumes in golf. In 2006, he made the clinching putt as Europe defeated the United States in the Ryder Cup. In 2007, his worldwide victories included the European Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic and the PGA Tour’s Accenture Match Play Championship.
But his win at the Players Championship tops them all, if only because of the depth of competition and difficulty of Dye’s test. Stenson’s most high-profile victim was Woods, who spent four rounds hitting tee shots almost everywhere but the fairway.
Playing in the final group with Alex Cejka — who lost his 54-hole, five-shot lead in a snap — Woods never mounted a charge, shooting 73 to finish eighth.
His day might have been best summed up on the par-5 second hole, where he pulled his 3-wood tee shot off a tree into pine needles, pushed his second shot into the water and made bogey.
“I just kept hitting those spinners up to the right,” Woods said. “If I aimed down the right, I’d spin it to the right. If I aimed it down the left, I’d still spin it to the right.”
Asked about playing in back-to-back tournaments for the first time since returning from knee surgery, Woods added: “No issues at all. It’s something we were wondering about, but it feels good.”
Woods’s struggles off the tee continued to be the theme of his comeback, even with his victory at Bay Hill. At the Quail Hollow Championship the week before the Players, Woods was testing different driver shafts before settling on the one he has used for several seasons. Woods made no excuse about his poor play at the TPC Sawgrass, a course that punishes the wayward shot like no other.
“I’ll fix it,” Woods said when asked about his woes. “It’s not that bad. If I had a two-way miss, I’d be a lot more concerned.”
Even worse was the play of Cejka, the surprising Saturday night leader who quickly fell apart while playing in the final group with Woods. He shot 79, which tied him for the second-worst score on Sunday.
“I played with the best golfer in the world, and I didn’t play well and neither did he, but he kind of saved it,” said Cejka, pointing to a few of Woods’s scrambling par saves. “I was just unlucky. I didn’t have one good break today, not one good break.”
Stenson made his own luck, namely by pounding fairways and greens. In a championship that has seen Greg Norman shoot 24 under and Davis Love III card a final-round 64, Stenson’s flawless 66 may ultimately be compared to those brilliant moments.
Wherever his week ranks, Stenson has found a higher plane in golf, not to mention a new crystal trophy and another cool story to go with his one-time swing in skivvies.