Henrik Stenson reflects on his win at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola, and winning the FedExCup.
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
ATLANTA — Maybe it was a blessing in disguise.
What had been a nine-shot lead when he made the turn on Saturday at East Lake had dwindled to four when Henrik Stenson finished off a rain-soaked 69 that included three bogeys in his last five holes. Turns out, the reality check was just what the superlative Swede needed as he contemplated what turned out to be a career-defining final round at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola.
“It was probably as tough of a situation as I’ve been in in terms of having that big lead yesterday, didn’t finish that great,” Stenson acknowledged. “But in one sense, it could have been good as well because it really made me focus … because I knew I had to play a good game of golf today to hold the guys off.”
That’s exactly what Stenson did, too, as he won the FedExCup and that eye-popping $10 million bonus, as well as his second Playoffs event in three weeks. His final-round 68 at East Lake was good for a three-stroke win over Jordan Spieth, who briefly pulled within a shot on the back nine, and Steve Stricker, who got within two.
Sunday morning, though, Stenson had to give himself a bit of an attitude adjustment.
“I still kind of had a little bit of a feeling that I let a few shots go away too easily there on the back nine in the rain,” he explained. “Even though I didn’t do badly, it was still just that feeling. I had to take a little bit of time to shake that. I knew it was a lot of things on the line.”
Indeed, there were. Stenson had come to East Lake ranked second in the FedExCup, secure in the knowledge that a win would give him the biggest bonanza in the game. In fact, he could finish as low as sixth and still win the $10 million.
Stenson was focused on the trophies and the triumph, though, not topping off his checking account. He had even admitted on Saturday afternoon that anything less than the dual victory would have felt like a disappointment.
Stenson wasn’t able to take advantage of the front nine at East Lake on Sunday as he had during the first three rounds when he made 13 birdies. He still made the turn with a comfortable five-stroke lead, though, before Spieth, Stricker and Dustin Johnson started closing the gap.
Spieth, the 20-year-old wonderkid who started the season with no status on TOUR, made the first move when he birdied his final three holes on the front nine and then reeled off four more in a row starting at No. 13. He had no choice but to put the hammer down if he was to have a chance of catching Stenson.
“I was just looking up and seeing that I needed more instead of being satisfied with what had happened,” Spieth said, his maturity belying his tender years.
The Texan’s 10-footer at the 16th hole capped the run and brought out a slight fist pump from the poised young man, who suddenly was within a shot after Stenson made his lone bogey at the 14th. But the Swede responded with an 8-footer for birdie at the next while Spieth’s run ended when he caught a 9-iron a “tad” fat at the 17th and couldn’t save par from a plugged lie in the greenside bunker.
“I heard the roar, so I figured I’m not just a pretty face,” Stenson said. “I could put one and one together. I figured it was him that made the (birdie) on 16. And then I was not in a great spot. … (But) I knew I had the par 5 coming up.”
Stricker, meanwhile, had originally planned to be hunting elk with a bow and arrow with his buddies in Colorado this week. But after skipping the first Playoffs event, he finished second and fourth in the next two to move to sixth in the FedExCup. Stricker decided he didn’t want to miss what he called the game’s Super Bowl.
The popular veteran from Wisconsin started the final round in third place, seven strokes off Stenson’s lead. But more importantly, he was within the top five who could win the FedExCup with a TOUR Championship victory thanks to Tiger Woods’ tumble down the leaderboard and eventual tie for 22nd.
A front-nine 33 gave Stricker a glimmer of hope. And when he drained a 23-footer at the 15th hole — the 46-year-old’s first eagle in 572 holes at East Lake — he was within two strokes of Stenson’s lead before pars on the final three holes ended his chances.
“I knew I needed that putt for sure on 15 up the hill, and I also knew that I probably had to birdie one or two holes coming in, which is a tall task here,” Stricker said. “… So it was close, but yet he had it under control, I think. He was playing great. Every time it seemed like he made a mistake, it seemed like he came back and birdied a hole fairly quickly again and separated himself again.
“So hat’s off to him. He played great. He played great in the Playoffs. He won two of these events. He deserves to be the champion.”
Stricker went so far as to say he would consider Stenson for PGA TOUR Player of the Year honors, along with that five-time winner named Woods. Not a bad comeback for a player who was ranked as low as 230 in the world at the beginning of 2012, and Stricker, who went into a similar free fall eight years ago when he lost his TOUR card and was ranked in the triple digits, as well, understood the magnitude of the climb.
“It’s very rare when a player doesn’t go through some sort of struggles,” Stricker said. “… Henrik had a little blip on his screen there for a while, much like everybody.
“It’s nice to see that he’s put in the work and the energy and the time to get it back and to reach, really, the ultimate thing in our sport, to win the FedExCup.”
Stenson, who has finished third or better five times in his last seven starts, will be ranked fourth in the world on Monday, which equals his highest standing since after he won THE PLAYERS Championship in 2009. He’s taking several weeks off before heading to Asia to finish out the European Tour schedule to see if he can win the Race to Dubai.
“It’s just been a great summer,” Stenson said. “I mean, way beyond what I could imagine. The play that I performed here since mid-July has been incredible.
“It’s obviously the work that I’d done before. It wasn’t like you wake up in the middle of July and you start playing fantastic. I put the work in in the spring.”
The payoff was $11.44 million, which means he can splurge on the Coke machines he promised to countryman Jonas Blixt and three other friends. But winning the season-long competition was priceless.
“To be the FedExCup champion, that means a whole lot more to me than the money,” Stenson said with a well-deserved smile of satisfaction.