Take Henrik Stenson’s driver out of his bag before a round at Bay Hill and he probably wouldn’t even notice. Stenson, who fired a second consecutive six-under 66, only hit one driver in the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational — and on other days, he’s taken it out a maximum of three or four times.
Stenson’s length and his excellent ballstriking, particularly with his 3-wood, have propelled him to a two-shot lead through 54 holes at 16-under for the tournament.
The Swede-turned-Orlando resident was cruising along quite nicely, hitting fairways (12/14) and greens (16/18) and making the occasional birdie putt — yet flying under the radar. He made the turn at a ho-hum two-under for the day, but then put the pedal to the medal on the last four holes. Starting on the par-4 15th, Stenson rolled in a 12-footer for birdie to kick off his hot finish.
He, then, snagged the momentum from the rest of the leaders when he hit 3-wood-6-iron into the par-5 16th and left himself with a 20-footer for eagle, which he drained to get to 15-under. He settled with a par on the difficult 17th. Next, on the tough par-4 18th, Stenson hit 3-wood off the tee, leaving himself with a pitching wedge into the green — he almost jarred the shot and only had a two-footer to tap-in for his birdie.
“I was going about my business, didn’t get off to a fast start but it was still okay, kept it in play and took my chance when I got it on 6, missed a good chance on 7 and then hit a nice shot into 9 and birdied that one,” said Stenson in his post-round presser.
“I could have been a shot better or so on the front-9. I was trying to play the course according to my game plan and keep my focus and my patience and everything and got off to a good finish again.
“Today was, all in all, a better played round than yesterday even though the result was the same but I felt like I hit better shots and striking has been good this week which has been a little off the previous two weeks.
“The first two rounds at Doral was good but not been great. Finished off with a strong Sunday in Tampa and then this has been the best it’s been combined for any out of these three weeks I played.”
He added, with a wry smile, “Apparently those phone lessons with (my swing coach) Pete (Cowen) works on Wednesday nights.”
Stenson, who kicked off 2015 on the PGA Tour at Doral, has placed in the top five in his previous two starts, with a T4 finish at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and solo 4th at last week’s Valspar Championship.
Asked to grade his game the last two weeks, he gave himself a 7 for Tampa and so far this week, he’d rate his overall game at 8 or 8 1/2. I wonder how he’d do if he were ever playing at 10. But don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, or possibly, ever.
“Even though I feel like I can get a little bit more confidence and little bit more out of my ball striking, it’s still been very good this week, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist so the day you hear 10 out of my mouth, I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen,” said Stenson.
As we know, no lead is ever really safe on the PGA Tour, especially as of late — the last eight 54-hole leaders on the PGA Tour haven’t gotten the job done on Sundays. While Stenson isn’t sure what to attribute that phenomenon to, he knows he needs to stay aggressive.
“They haven’t played well enough,” said Stenson, laughing, when informed of that stat. “I’m not just a pretty face.
“Depends a lot on how it kind of sets up. If you have a really packed leaderboard behind it’s going to make for lot of guys trying to attack. If you got a five shot lead and there’s only one guy chasing you then you’re going to feel a lot worse if you don’t pull it off. 8 for 8, 1,000. All right.
“I’ll try and make that different tomorrow then but can’t give any guarantees. I’ll certainly try and I think it just shows it’s a tighter game these days. More guys who can win.
“On a Sunday more of the players who go out harder trying to attack especially if fear they’re a few shots behind, if I don’t do it, someone else is going to do it. They might put a number in the mind and go out and try and chase that.
“That’s why I said you can’t really sit back if you got a 1, 2 shot lead. You got to play a solid round. Of course, if I put 3, 4, 5-under par on the board tomorrow for my round it’s going to be a whole lot harder for the guys to catch me than if I go out and shoot level.”
However, Stenson, who has a good record as a frontrunner (1 for 1 as the 54-hole leader on the PGA Tour at the 2013 Tour Championship but has completed the feat more times on the European Tour), doesn’t feel like he’ll need to post something as low as five- or six-under on Sunday.
“Sometimes the air is a little thinner on Sunday afternoon in the last couple of groups,” he said. “I definitely expect a few other guys to put a good score in and make a charge but, again, I’m going to try to play my game the way I played it for the first three days.”
With the dramatic finish that the last three holes provide, Stenson knows he might need to re-evaluate his strategy late in the game.
“If I need to make any adjustments on the last three, four holes in whichever direction I’ll look at that and make that decision then,” he said. “But yeah, of course, couple of shots lead on the really, really tough golf course might be a little bit easy if you can defend against par a little bit easier but, again, I’m going to play it the same way and I expect to make a few birdies if I want to win this tomorrow.”
You heard it here: Stenson will get the job done tomorrow.
When told that Morgan Hoffmann, his playing partner tomorrow, makes his own lunches, Stenson quipped, “I don’t want to put all that extra work in there for him. I’ll bring my own sandwich. He doesn’t need to worry about me.”