The north end of the Thursday leaderboard at the Players Championship is usually where you find small triumphs, men who survived their first-round bout without face-planting on Pete Dye’s celebrated canvas. The south end of that leaderboard is where you find tiny tragedies, and none of the 154 competitors here appeared more lamentable than Henrik Stenson.
Less than five years ago, the 44-year-old Swede was good enough to win the Open Championship. He won the Players in 2009 too. But as the day wore on, Stenson was 20 strokes off Sergio Garcia’s lead and firmly DFL after an atrocious 85.
Stenson’s day was littered with dregs: six 6s, a 7, a triple-bogey on 17, five other bogeys, and two anomalous birdies that wrong-turned into an orgy of scorecard destruction.
His previous worst score in 48 rounds at TPC Sawgrass was 79, a benchmark he blew by on the 17th green when his 63-footer for bogey came up five feet short. Afterward, I asked his coach, Pete Cowen, where things went wrong.
“Between us, we’ve confused his mind trying to get him back to the level he was at in 2016, searching too much for perfection instead of sticking to the basic stuff,” Cowen said. “I blame myself as much as anybody. The coach has to take the blame when that happens. It could be mental as well. He’s thinking about how to swing it when he’s hitting the shot, which is a recipe for disaster.”
It wasn’t always thus. In 2013, Stenson famously won a European Tour event in Dubai while hitting 69 of 72 greens, which Cowen describes as “PlayStation golf.” The veteran coach said that is the virtually unattainable standard to which Stenson defaults as his performance goal.
“Searching for perfection is the nature of the beast. He wants to be perfect,” said Cowen, who has coached the six-time PGA Tour winner for 20 years. “He can’t accept a three-yard draw, can’t accept it at all. He’s like, ‘No no no! It’s got draw on it.’”
“He always perceived himself as someone who hits it dead straight. ‘I don’t have this left in me when I’m playing my best!’ He did, but he didn’t think he did.”
Thursday’s 85 was about as far from perfection as it seems possible for an elite golfer to get. He lost 5.8 strokes to the field off the tee, ranking worst in the field. He lost 8.8 strokes tee to green, also DFL. He found only 5 fairways and 8 greens. He lost two strokes against the field both approaching and around the greens, was 3 of 10 scrambling, and shed another 2.4 strokes putting. His was the rare example of a major winner’s scorecard that offered not a single glimmer of light, no hope on which to build tomorrow.
Since leaving the canceled Players Championship a year ago, Stenson has made 14 starts around the world, producing eight missed cuts, one WD, and no finish higher than T21. TPC Sawgrass is not a venue where a man with that record is likely to discover his game. It’s death by paper cuts, where doubt and fear is inculcated on almost every shot, where confidence is constantly eroded, where hardened competitors feel a trickle of cold sweat at the very moment they need icy calm.
I asked Cowen how far Stenson’s game is from where the former world No. 1 wants it to be. “Miles away,” he shot back. “Miles away from where he wants to be in his own mind.”
Is he that far away in your mind?
“Because he’s a golfer.”
As Cowen spoke, the golfer — a man who effortlessly shot 63 to outduel Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon less than five years ago — strode onto the range, ready to grind anew.
On Friday at 12:38 p.m. he will go to the 10th tee — the scene of one of his Thursday birdies — and try again, hoping to find some truth in the old cliche that things can only get better.