Monday, May 11, 2009

Super Swede tames Sawgrass

It is known as the fifth major and today it played like a major. The Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass produced a Sunday of golf to rival any major and it was the Uber-consistent Swede Henrik Stenson who survived to claim the title, producing a flawless final round six-under 66 to win by four over Englishman Ian Poulter.

The languid, long-hitting 33-year-old is fast becoming one of the best players never to have won a major title. The man who currently holds that unenviable “title”, Sergio Garcia, ironically won the Players last year.

But Stenson’s golfing resume is starting to read like that of a major champion. He entered the world’s top 10 with a win at the Dubai Desert Classic in February 2007. He then backed that up with a win at the prestigious World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play. Both times Tiger Woods featured prominently in the field. Then last year the Swede produced his most consistent results in majors as he tied for third and fourth at the British Open and USPGA respectively.

Today he played with the composure of a major champion. As the rest of the field melted under the pressure and the heat, on a treacherous golf-course that had been baked to a crisp, Stenson remained ice-cool behind his Oakley sunglasses.

Stenson began the day in a group of six players tied for second, five shots behind 54-hole leader Alex Cjeka, and a shot ahead of three other players. Of those ten men he was the only player to break 70 on Sunday, let alone shoot 66.

It was Cjeka’s tournament to lose. The German journeyman’s story is a remarkable one. Born behind the Iron-Curtain in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, nine-year-old Cjeka unwittingly fled the Soviet-run state with his father crossing through four countries before swimming across the Rhine River into West Germany and freedom.

Cjeka had played brilliantly all week, belying his world ranking of 267. He led the field in driving accuracy and seemed to be playing a different golf course through 54 holes. The fear most held for Cjeka was the threat of Tiger Woods, who was paired with him in Sunday’s final group, drawing comparisons with Sean O’Hair who partnered Woods at Bay Hill six weeks ago with a five-shot lead only to lose by a stroke. Cjeka seemed unfazed about the prospect quoting the final-round of the 1996 British Open when he beat Woods – then a 20-year-old amateur – by three strokes. However that achievement ranks alongside English cricketer John White, whose claim to fame was dismissing a 20-year-old test debutant named Bradman.

But it was Stenson, not Woods, who made the most noise with a performance that was the total antithesis to the other nine men in the last five pairs.

Stenson hit 13 of 14 fairways in the final round, essentially copying the blueprint laid out by Cjeka over the previous three days. He turned in two-under 34 having ignited his day with birdie from the fringe at seven. He struck the best tee-shot of the day at the monstrous 235-yard par three eighth but could not capitalise. A two-putt birdie at nine was enough to give him the lead at eight-under from a host of players after Cjeka and Woods butchered the front side.

Cjeka’s magnificent driving over the first three days disappeared on Sunday as he flipped everything left on his way to a front-nine six-over 42 which virtually ended his tournament. He finished in a tie for ninth after a disastrous 79.

Woods was doing the polar-opposite to his playing partner and losing everything right. He confessed after day three that he is still fighting his swing since returning from knee surgery. He “grinds” better than anyone, his tournament score held together by his steadfast putter and superior mental strength, as he holed more than 50 putts from inside five-feet without fail all week.

But today his swing was at its worst and the best score he could muster was a one-over par 73. Consistent block-cuts were his kryptonite. His hips beating his hands through the ball as he wrestled with his rhythm the entire day.

Rhythm was a feature of Stenson’s play. His driving was exemplary bar one fairway miss at 14 but he still rescued par when he caught a break with the lie in the right rough.

But the power of positive thinking was the key. He was full of confidence following a magnificent birdie-two at 13. He has worked on his mental game recently with mind-guru Bob Rotella, the man accredited with unlocking the secrets to Padraig Harrington’s recent success. Not to mention the assured caddie Fanny Sunesson by his side, who partnered Nick Faldo to four of his six major titles.

Birdies at 15 and 16 meant he could safely negotiate the treacherous 17th and 18th without risk.

The eccentric Poulter was the best of the rest with a composed two-under 70 to finish in outright second. Poulter is best known for a verbal gaff last year where he revealed that if he got his game together it would be he and Tiger Woods each week and the rest would be playing for third.

But Poulter showed he may be able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. He struggled with a 75 on Saturday playing alongside a resolute Cjeka but his response today was Tiger-esque as he grinded his was to eight-under whilst those around him fell apart.

It still wasn’t good enough to reel in the Swede. Stenson confirming he belongs amongst the game’s elite players while showing the composure and class required to win a major championship.

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