Holding the lead after 54 holes was not the position to be in this year in the PGA Tour’s four major championships and the first three FedExCup Playoffs events.
Third round leaders were 0-for-4 in the majors and 0-for-3 in the Playoffs coming to East Lake and the Tour Championship by Coca-Cola.
Henrik Stenson held the lead going to the final round of the 2013 Tour Championship, but was in a slightly different position than the players in similar situations in the majors and Playoffs events.
In six of those seven tournaments, the leader held a slim one-shot advantage over his closest pursuer. Lee Westwood led by two going to the final round of the British Open.
Stenson’s margin was a little more comfortable, as he enjoyed a 4-stroke cushion over runner-up Dustin Johnson after 54 holes at East Lake. Steve Stricker was six shots back in third place, with a quartet of players seven off the lead in a tie for fourth.
Employing a conservative approach that produced 14 pars and just one bogey — the result of an errant tee shot and a flier from the rough — Stenson carded a final round 68 and held off the lone serious challenge mounted by one of his pursuers.
Stenson finished with a 13-under 267 total, the first time the Tour Championship winner has shot under 270 since East Lake’s greens were converted to MiniVerde Bermuda in 2008. His margin of victory was three shots over 20-year-old rookie Jordan Spieth and the veteran Stricker, who tied for second at 270.
Spieth made a determined bid to overtake Stenson, running off seven birdies in a 10-hole stretch beginning at the seventh. Consecutive birdies at 13, 14, 15 and 16 pulled Spieth within one of the lead after Stenson suffered his lone bogey of the final round on the 14th hole.
But Spieth bogeyed the 17th after coming up short with his approach into a bunker, Stenson birdied the short par-5 15th to regain a 3-stroke advantage, and that was that.
Stenson’s victory capped an exceptionally consistent and successful stretch of golf that began in July in Scotland. Stenson led the Scottish Open by two shots going to the final round, but closed with a 73 to tie for third, two behind Phil Mickelson, who won in a playoff.
The following week at Muirfield, Stenson was second to Mickelson, who shot 66 in the final round to win by three over the 37-year-old Swede, who closed with a 70.
Two weeks later, Stenson tied for second in the WGC Bridgetone Invitational behind runaway winner Tiger Woods, and was third the following week in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, three in back of Jason Dufner.
Stenson began the FedExCup Playoffs with a 65 in the first round of The Barclays, but struggled the final three rounds and finished in the middle of the pack.
The following week in the Deutsche Bank Championship, Stenson went from challenger to champion, overtaking a fading Sergio Garcia to win by two over Stricker with a 22-under total for 72 holes. He shot a second round 63 and back-to-back 66s to close out his victory.
After another middling finish in the BMW Championship in Chicago, Stenson came into the Tour Championship second in the FedExCup Playoffs standings behind Woods, and did not take long to grab control of the tournament.
Firing one approach shot after another to within easy birdie range, Stenson began his first tournament round ever at East Lake with five birdies in seven holes, including four in succession beginning at the fourth. He closed out his round with his seventh birdie of the day at the tough par-3 18th for a 64 and a one-stroke lead over Adam Scott, who won at East Lake in 2006.
Stenson again took apart the front nine on Friday, carding four birdies for a 31 going out. He settled for a 66 and a 4-stroke margin over Scott after 36 holes.
Tee times for the third round were moved up several hours in anticipation of rain that arrived late in the morning and got heavier as play neared its conclusion. Stenson got off to another fast start, matching his 4-under 31 on the front nine from the previous day, and at one point held a whopping 9-stroke lead.
But he encountered problems in the wet conditions coming in, taking four bogeys on the back nine, with his lead reduced to a still considerable 4-shot margin by the end of the day. Birdies at 15 and 16 gave Johnson a 67 and a spot in Sunday’s final group along with Stenson, with Stricker six back in third after a 68. Despite his shaky finish, Stenson carded a 69 in the sloppy conditions, which did not impact scoring a great deal compared to the previous day.
Stenson protected his lead the final day, notching birdies at 7 and 11 to go with all pars until he flew the green with his second shot at the 14th. Spieth and Webb Simpson both went on torrid birdie binges on the back nine, but were too far back to overtake the steady Swede.
Simpson shot 63 with four birdies in five holes from 12 to 16, taking fourth at 271. Spieth closed with a 64 to share second with Stricker, who had all pars on the back other than an eagle at 15 and shot 65.
Johnson birdied four holes from 11 to 16 to pull even with Speith and Stricker for second, but chopped his way to a triple bogey 7 at the 17th. He rebounded with a birdie at the 18th to take fifth at 272 with a final round 69 on a day when the average score was 68, even though East Lake played its full length, with almost all the pin positions in back corners of the greens.
Stenson’s victory also gave him the FedExCup championship and a $10 million bonus on top of the $1.44 million he earned for his victory in the tournament.
“It’s been a great week and obviously a great playoffs for me,” Stenson said after his victory. “It’s been a great summer, way beyond what I could imagine. Since mid-July it’s been incredible.”
It didn’t take long for Stenson to make a name for himself on the PGA Tour. In just his third start in the U.S., he tied for third in a WGC event in San Francisco in 2005. For the next four years, he played sparingly in America, but kept popping up on leader boards in big events.
Stenson tied for third in his first Players Championship appearance in 2006. He won the WGC Match Play Championship in ’07, and made his first start in Atlanta the following week, tying for ninth in the next-to-last PGA Tour stop at TPC Sugarloaf. Stenson was 3rd in the Match Play, T3 in the British Open and T4 in the PGA Championship in ’08, and won the Players in ’09, along with top 10s in the U.S. Open and PGA.
Following the 2009 season, Stenson elected to join the PGA Tour, but played terribly throughout 2010 in the U.S., although he managed a tie for third in the British Open. He did not qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs and had to play in the Fall Series to get in enough PGA Tour starts to retain his membership.
Things didn’t get much better the next two seasons, as he again failed to qualify for the Playoffs and was relegated to playing in some second tier events on the PGA Tour while his peers were competing in WGC tournaments.
Stenson re-emerged as a world class player late in 2012, winning the South Africa Open. He continued his comeback in the U.S. earlier this season, tying for second in Houston and for fifth in the Players Championship before his recent stretch of outstanding play.
During his lengthy slump, Stenson’s world ranking, which reached a high of 4th after his Players Championship victory in 2009, plummeted into the 200s. After his win at East Lake, he’s back up to 4th behind Woods, Scott and Mickelson.
“I think it says that I never give up. I’m obviously touching my personal best there. If I keep on playing well, I will have a chance later on in the year to improve on that.”
Stenson, who is known to occasionally exhibit public displays of frustration, had to fight a loss of confidence during his long stretch of sub-standard play.
“It was a mix of things. 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.”
Stenson had no need to display any frustration with his play at East Lake. He tied for third in fairways hit (36 of 56), one behind Stricker and Zach Johnson. He tied for first with Johnson in greens in regulation (56 of 72), the third time in the four Playoffs events he was first in GIR. Not known as an accomplished putter, Stenson was third in the primary putting stat behind Spieth and Simpson.
Thanks to his decision to hit 3-wood on all but a handful of holes, Stenson was 27th in driving distance, with his 285-yard average almost 40 yards behind Dustin Johnson.