Asked when he had last performed to the brilliant standard that enabled him to post an eight under par second round 64 during last week’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic, Henrik Stenson considered his options before (overlooking a third place finish at The Open) highlighting the final round of the 2009 Players Championship.
That Sunday, May 10, 2009, at TPC Sawgrass, was one of those days that truly world class players experience from time to time in their careers, when the perfect combination of their mastery of the game coupled with outside influences going the right way makes someone literally unbeatable.
With everything clicking into place to make him superhuman for the day, Stenson tamed Sawgrass, Tiger, and every other player in the field with a colossal six under par 66 to overhaul Alex Cejka’s five stroke lead and win by four from Ian Poulter.
Anyone who saw Stenson that day should be able to quickly recall how good he was, strolling round one of the toughest courses on the US PGA Tour bogey-free and taking a bow at the end.
“I played pretty solid at The Open in 2010 when I finished third at St Andrews, but still, I think my striking was much better on Friday in Dubai last week than then,” said Stenson. “So I would guess it’s back to when I won The Players that I had that strike and flight on the shots and felt that much in control of my game.”
Stenson’s outstanding, Friday afternoon 64 over the Majlis Course at the Emirates Golf Club might not have been under the bear-pit pressure of a final round battle at Sawgrass, but the Swede was hugely satisfied with a day’s work that validated the intense effort he has been putting into his game since recovering from meniscus surgery to his left knee in December last year.
The signs have been there on the range, where, for the past few weeks, Stenson and coach Pete Cowen have been nodding their heads in agreement more than shaking them in disbelief. There is a growing sense from teacher and pupil that Stenson is close to a return to the form that saw him win the 2007 WGC – Accenture Match Play Championship as well as The Players in 2009.
Those two victories, along with Ryder Cup appearances in 2006 and 2008, and a World Cup win for Sweden alongside Robert Karlsson in 2008, are the highlights of a career that began on the Challenge Tour (he won three times to win the Rankings in 2000) and has seen the 35 year old win six times on The European Tour since 2001.
But, like so many other great players, Stenson was not immune to loss of form and confidence and before he knew it, he was in the midst of a slump.
“You know, last week was the first time in a long while I felt that good on the golf course and I’m kind of enjoying playing in a different way compared to when you feel like it’s a struggle,” he said.
“The most important thing for me is long-term. When you’ve been going through a bit of a slump, you need to kind of look at it from the outside and try to figure out a few things to work on to try to long-term move back to where it should be.
“For the last two seasons I have been thinking short-term, when you are trying to figure out what to do on a weekly basis and you’re just running around in a circle instead of figuring out what you need to do.”
The first thing Stenson figured out at the end of last season was he need to fix that left knee which began troubling him during a practice round at last year’s Masters Tournament. Stenson knew he had a problem, but managed the pain and decided to persevere until the end of the year, by which time surgery was required to repair the medial meniscus in his left knee.
Some intense gym work with physio, Cornell Driessen (“he has been kicking my backside in the gym,” Stenson reports, “so I am stronger than ever at the age of 35, which is good,”) has helped the Swede return to full fitness and perhaps helped focus his mind on the task of competing for golf’s biggest prizes on a regular basis again.
“We’re not jumping up and down like crazy just yet, but it’s a big step in the right direction, and I take a lot of positives out of last week,” he said.
“If I can continue to build on that then I can get back into a place where I feel confident and can take that confidence and play to my potential. I know that if I put myself in position to win tournaments again then I'll hopefully sneak one or two more big ones.”