Henrik Stenson finds sweet redemption

Henrik Stenson during the first round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Henrik Stenson during the first round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

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AKRON, Ohio – In a forgettable 2010 season, rock-bottom moments were shockingly more frequent than one would expect from a world-class talent. But what took place in the solitude of the weekend mornings of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational still stands out.

Tiger Woods shooting 75-77 to finish with a stupefying 298 strokes at a place that had always been his playground? No one who witnessed those 36 holes had ever seen anything like it from him, but as we settle into the annual visit to Firestone Country Club, someone offered a reminder of how far removed he is from that miserable tournament.

And, no, we’re not talking Woods, who bogeyed two of his first seven holes but recovered nicely to open with a 4-under 66 on Thursday.

Instead, re-introduce yourself to a guy who once was ranked fourth in the world, but who at that 2010 Bridgestone somehow managed the improbable: he played worse than Woods.

“I mean, I saved Tiger from being last, so I’m going to say he was grateful,” Henrik Stenson said. A gentle smile appeared, because the memory of those 300 strokes and a dead-last 80th-place finish don’t weigh on him like an American tourist carrying luggage to his monthlong European vacation.

Fact is, Stenson said he never should have played that week.

“I was very ill. I had like a viral pneumonia that I wasn’t fully aware of, so I was really struggling,” said the Swede, whose bogey-free 65 Thursday was just one off of Webb Simpson’s first-round lead. “So I don’t walk around here with baggage (or) bad memories due to that week.”

Besides, Stenson is willing to let the good times roll, a just reward for riding out a few years of turbulence.

“You always learn things when you’re going through the ups and downs,” Stenson said. “It makes it all the sweeter when you succeed.”

Mind you, it’s not as if Stenson, 37, is toasting unmatched heights or realizing results he never dreamed possible. To the contrary, what he has done thus far in 2013 (two seconds, four top 10s, six top 25s) merely validates the commitment he made to a comeback process early in 2012.

Having won The Players Championship in 2009, reached No. 4 in the world, and piled up $2,550,185 in PGA Tour earnings, Stenson was a big deal.

And then, he wasn’t.

The fall from view was stunning. From seventh in the world at the end of 2009, Stenson fell to 53rd a year later, then tumbled all the way to 206th by the start of 2012. Not only was the Ryder Cup an afterthought in 2010 and 2012, despite having been on the team in 2006 and ’08, but he didn’t qualify for any of the four World Golf Championships in 2012 and his only major that year was the Masters, courtesy of a three-year exemption for his Players victory.

An all-star talent at home for the all-star games? How did that feel?

“I wasn’t crying all the time, but of course it’s not fun to sit at home and watch your colleagues play tournaments that you played in for five, seven years in a row.”

True to his character, though, Stenson met the situation head-on. “At some point, you have to accept where you’re at,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many eagles or birdies you’ve made in the past. You have to say, Well, we’re here now. What do we need to do to get back there, or even get better?

Stenson in early 2012 decided to reunite with his sports psychologist, Torsten Hansson, and points to that as a positive move. “(But) we’re not reinventing the wheel again,” he said. “If you’re playing poorly, it’s easy to get into a quick fix (mindset). There’s no magic involved; it’s just doing the right things, really.”

Though nothing he did in 2012 re-established the world order, Stenson did improve enough to make the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time since 2007, and his earnings ($791,107) left him 115th. Small stuff, for sure, especially when 39 guys made $2 million and 99 cracked $1 million, but Stenson felt differently about his game, both on and off the course.

“Eventually, you get to a point where you have to move forward,” he said, and late in 2012, Stenson saw some fruition to his patience. He won the South African Open. The Swede has indeed moved forward, and for proof, consider this: His earnings for just 12 tournaments this year ($2,203,503) already surpasses what he earned in 2010-12 combined ($1,801,976). What’s more, it’s not the six top 25s and the four top 10s, it’s the pair of second-place finishes that brings immense satisfaction to Stenson’s spirit and has him in a far different place than he was for a few years.

Which was where?

“I think it’s more the frustration. I’ve shown in the past that I can play some great golf, and I can win some nice tournaments,” Stenson said. “So when you know you’ve got the potential to do great stuff and it’s not happening, you build up frustration.”

Through it all, however, Stenson maintained perspective.

“Everybody goes through it,” he said, and, in fact, Stenson conceded that 2010-12 wasn’t his first slump. He also went through some bumps in 2001-02, back when he played primarily on the European PGA Tour. “Ernie (Els) was done for a while. Adam (Scott)? We didn’t see much of him; now he’s won a major.

“It’s a hard game to be on top of all the time.”

His opening 65 was pretty sedate – 14 pars – as Stenson packed a one-two punch that did the damage. Opening birdie, eagle wasn’t “the worst way to start a round (at Firestone),” he said, and making birdies at Nos. 11 and 12 helped, too. All in all, “5 under and bogey-free around here is not something you do every day, I guess.”

Certainly, it’s not the type of stuff Stenson was doing much of in the lean years of 2010-12, but that picture has changed. Just a few weeks ago, Stenson thrust himself into contention at the Open Championship; in fact, down the stretch, as Scott and Lee Westwood faded, Stenson offered the only legitimate chance to derail Phil Mickelson.

The left-hander’s epic 5-under 66 at Muirfield, however, proved too much.

“Bogeys at (Nos.) 12 and 13 kind of ruined my chances,” Stenson said, “but I was still hanging in there.”

When Stenson missed a birdie roll at the 16th, he was 1 over and saw that Mickelson was 2 under. “I felt the train had left the station at that point.”

Still, he had hope and as he lined up a 3-foot birdie putt at the par-5 17th, Stenson turned to his caddie and said, “If I make this, then we have to make the second shot on the last (to tie).”

Then, roars filtered back down to the 17th green. The incomparable left-hander had birdied 18. Stenson, buoyed by a terrific play and a renewed sense of confidence, smiled. “Now,” he said to his caddie, “I’ve got to make the tee shot. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Of course, it didn’t, but no worries.

“It was all good,” he said. “It all came together nicely.”

Still is, too.

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