Once unable to control emotions and swing, Stenson now at elite level

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Henrik Stenson would allow himself to become frustrated during rounds, but now stays more positive.
September 24, 2013
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM

ATLANTA -- Underneath the icy exterior of dark sunglasses, a stoic walk and pipes even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous character, the Terminator, would appreciate, Henrik Stenson has been known to lose his cool on occasion. But the Super Swede actually is super funny, and during the last two months he has been the best player on the planet thanks to a golf swing that is robotically efficient.

The prize on Sunday was The TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and consequently the FedExCup trophy and its $10 million bonus. But here's the scary part: Stenson's best may still be yet to come.

“He’s playing at about 70 percent of what I want,” Stenson's longtime coach Pete Cowen said over the weekend. “But if you play on 70 percent, you can play on anything. You’re at the top. But I know he can go to 80.”

This wasn't always the case with Stenson, who early in his career reached as high as No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking before he saw his game and his confidence disappear -- twice -- in slumps that were separated by a decade.

The first came not long after Stenson turned pro, when as a rookie on the European Tour in 2001, he won in just his 11th start but tinkered with his swing and later walked off the golf course after nine abysmal holes of the European Open at the K Club that year.

He bounced back through hard work and some unusual drills under Cowen and sports psychologist Torsten Hansson, whom Stenson had worked with since his days on the Swedish national team. One way he came to trust his swing again, for example, was to hit shots blindfolded.

It eventually paid off in 2009 when Stenson won THE PLAYERS Championship and reached No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking the following week. He was on the rise again and machine-like with the approach.

“Ninety-five percent of players on tour are manipulators,” Cowen said. “Therefore, when you look at their record over a year it’s up and down like a yo-yo. But if you have great mechanics you are steady more often.

“It’s a muscle structure that determines the movement of the club, not the movement itself. It’s taken years to get that message through. It doesn’t happen in the middle of the night. It took 2 1/2 years our first year to go from nowhere to fourth in the world, and another while to get him in a position where he truly trusts (his swing).”

Even when Stenson did, however, the trust sometimes didn’t last long for reasons even Stenson struggles to explain.

“It was a mix of things,” he said. “Confidence is one thing, and I was not hitting the ball the way I can. Once you're kind of on the downhill spiral, it's hard to break it. It was a lot of frustration.”

So too was there over investments Stenson made with his one-time sponsor Stanford Financial, who ended up bilking him out of millions of dollars. The Swede was hardly cash-strapped but the hit took its toll. "He was a player who got his confidence from financial status," Cowen said.

Like with his golf swing, Stenson had lost trust, this time in a company he had given a significant chunk of his savings to. “I thought I had placed my money in a secure way,” he said. “That was the most annoying thing.”

Not long after, Stenson’s second slide took him over the edge as he fell to 230th in the world after he failed to record a single top 10 on the PGA TOUR in 2011. That season he ranked 163rd in driving accuracy, 187th in greens in regulation, 187th in ballstriking and 156th in scoring.

Slowly, Stenson began building his game and his confidence back up -- again. Only this time it wasn't as difficult, Stenson says, and the approach was pretty straightforward.

“Most swings have a DNA you can see, but what you have to do as a coach is you can’t change that,” Cowen said. “What you have to change is the control element of their swing, to make it more controllable.

“If you understand the mechanics and get it through to the player, the process will give you the consistency at the other end. That’s what we’ve done with him.”

It worked.

Stenson won in South Africa at the end of last year and kept the momentum going this season. From July on, no one on the planet has played better. The 37-year-old finished third at Castle Stuart and followed with a runner-up at The Open Championship the next week.

He finished second at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational and third at the PGA Championship seven days later. Two starts after that, he broke through with a win at the Deutsche Bank Championship, as he tied the tournament scoring record of 22-under 262 after a pair of 66s on the weekend.

Then came last week's TOUR Championship, where Stenson looked like he might destroy the field. He led by nine midway through the third round before a couple of hours of rain washed away the blowout, forcing him to re-focus, which probably wasn’t such a bad thing in the end for the Swede.

He finished the week at East Lake ranked first in the field in greens in regulation, third in fairways hit and third in strokes gained-putting. He also ranked first in greens in regulation in all but one Playoffs event.

It wasn’t much different for the season -- Stenson was seventh in fairways hit, third in total driving, first in greens in regulation, first in ballstriking and ultimately fourth in scoring.

“He's played incredible,” said Tiger Woods. “From basically the British Open on, he's basically put it together, and he's played so consistently, while at a high level. He's hit it great, made his share of putts, but he's just been so consistent day in and day out.”

Now Stenson has a chance to do something no one ever has: Win the FedExCup and the European Tour’s Race to Dubai. The former was already taken care of thanks to his victory on Sunday. Who says he can’t be the first to do both?

"It's just been a great summer," Stenson said. "Way beyond what I could imagine. The way that I performed here since mid July has been incredible."

Just imagine if he hits 80 percent.