ATLANTA, Ga. — Two years ago, Henrik Stenson had a chance to win the European Tour’s Race To Dubai — the poor man’s FedEx Cup to an American’s viewpoint — even though he hadn’t won a single tournament on that tour.
Well, Stenson eradicated that anomaly by winning the grand finale in Dubai and capturing the Race To Dubai.
And oh, by the way, Stenson won the Tour Championship at East Lake that year and the FedEx Cup $10 million bonus, too.
Yes, it was a good year to be Stenson’s tax accountant. Not only was it historic, since no one else had won both titles, Stenson dubbed it a double-double since he won both titles by winning both tour finales. There’s a feat unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon.
Here he comes again. Stenson has pitched a shutout on the PGA Tour in 2015. He has no wins this year even though he had 54-hole leads at Bay Hill and at the Deutsche Bank Championship that he wasn’t able to close. Yet it is very possible for him to win the FedEx Cup $10 million without winning here at East Lake this week.
Stenson may eradicate this anomaly, too. He was on 59 watch Thursday afternoon once he reached eight under par through 12 holes, since East Lake is par 70. The Swede needed just three more birdies on the last six holes to get to 59, but he cooled off and started making pars, then three-putted for a bogey from 90 feet at 17.
“I wanted to get off to a good start and I surely did,” Stenson said.
His 63 pretty much lapped the 28-man field at East Lake. There were 29 players at the start of Thursday but South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen withdrew during the first round with a hamstring injury.
Only three other players did better than two under par in the opening round. And Stenson found himself with a two-shot advantage over England’s Paul Casey, who shot 65. Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson shot 66. Five strokes separate Stenson and the players at two under par, which includes Jordan Spieth.
Earlier in the week, Stenson had joked about sneaking in to swipe the FedEx Cup title. “It shouldn’t be too hard to wipe the floor with these guys, right?” he said. “There’s no one playing great and sky high on confidence, no one with a bunch of majors and no one who hits it 330. So it shouldn’t be that hard.”
Jason Day, your newly crowned No. 1 player in the world, probably would’ve laughed harder than anyone at Stenson’s jibe. Day birdied the opening three holes and looked like he’d pick up where he left off at the BMW Championship last week, where he crushed the field. Then Day showed he’s human by making a triple bogey at the fifth hole, wiping out all three birdies with a tee shot out of bounds.
The FedEx Cup is a tournament played only on paper with confusing point totals. Stenson came to East Lake fourth on that points list and, as the PGA Tour likes to say, the top five players control their destiny. If any of them win the tournament, they automatically win the FedEx Cup bonus.
As for winning the $10 million without winning this week, Stenson said, “If that happens, I know I would be smiling. I would rather go home with two trophies, though.”
The Tour Championship is a real tournament played on a real course and that’s the fun part of this week, not the Math Olympics that Golf Channel and NBC are forced to play with their graphics all weekend.
Stenson has won here before. He’s overdue to win this year. The Tour Championship might ultimately be that simple.
Stenson has clearly deciphered East Lake’s challenge. He opened with a 64 in 2013 when he won. He was one stroke better this time. The difference between the rounds was that in 2013, he hit one driver off the tee. Thursday, he didn’t pull the club from the bag. East Lake’s bermuda rough is just gnarly enough to make hitting it close difficult, so Stenson’s game plan is to hit fairways and greens.
“The biggest threat here is the rough,” Stenson said. “Off the fairways and around the greens. If you miss a fairway, there’s a very high percentage that you won’t hit the green. So I’ve been hitting 3-woods and 4-woods off the tee. I’d rather have a 6-iron in from the fairway than an 8-iron from the rough.”
With light rain that began to fall late in the first round and more rain forecast throughout the day Friday, Stenson joked that the bermuda rough probably won’t be any easier to play out of once it gets wet.
The highlight of his quick start was the par-5 ninth hole. After a nice tee shot, he hit a 4-wood shot to 18 feet, pin-high right, then rolled in the eagle putt for 29 on the front side. He birdied the 10th and 12th holes, also with close approach shots, and was within range of something really low.
After Day’s recent run, including his 61-63 start last week at the BMW Championship, maybe we need to redefine low. Stenson’s 63 maybe seemed a little disappointing because he got so far under so early, then played the last six holes in one over par.
He wouldn’t admit to thinking about 59 after the 12th hole. If he’d eagled the par-5 15th, he said, he might have, but those last three finishing holes aren’t birdie holes. “You’d take even par on those three holes for the week,” he said, “and try to get all your birdies on the other holes.”
Day always figured to be challenged to be emotionally and mentally ready for this week. He’s had a long run of great golf and after the BMW Championship, he achieved his lifelong goal of reaching No. 1. It’s hard to come down off that unimaginable high, turn it around and get back up to play in the season finale, no matter how much money is at stake. Day shot 69 and was tied for 11th.
Casey said watching Day’s stellar streak of play has made him feel like a spectator. “I’m enjoying that amazing run,” Casey said. “And it’s huge motivation — I’ve got to putt a little better or drive it a little better.
“I had a joke with Jason yesterday. I was asked to play a practice round at the Aussie Masters, you’d have to look up the year. I said, OK, who am I playing with. They said, Oh, we’ve got some young guys — Oliver Fisher, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. They were 16 or 18 or something like that. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I played with them.”
Day and McIlroy have lived up to great expectations. After a fast start Thursday, Stenson has some of his own.