ATLANTA (AP) – At this stage in his career, Henrik Stenson never expects anything to come easily.
He already had poured in hours upon hours of work to even get to this stage _ a four-shot lead going into the last day of the Tour Championship, giving him a clear shot at the FedEx Cup and the biggest payoff in golf. He was reminded what was at stake when he saw the two trophies displayed on the first tee at East Lake.
“I knew it was a lot of things on the line,” he said.
He figured his best move was to play his best golf, and he delivered a 2-under 68 on Sunday to claim both trophies.
With a birdie on the 15th hole that thwarted a late charge by 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, followed by three pars from the sand, Stenson wound up with a three-shot victory over Spieth and Steve Stricker in the Tour Championship. Equally important, if not more, he captured the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus.
“The main thing is to block everything out and go play golf, which I was pretty good at in the long run,” Stenson said Sunday.
The short run hasn’t been bad, either.
No one has played better over the last three months. Stenson tied for third in the Scottish Open, and was runner-up a week later at the British Open. He was runner-up in the World Golf Championship at Firestone and finished third at the PGA Championship. And when the FedEx Cup playoffs began, the 37-year-old Swede didn’t lose his stride. He won the Deutsche Bank Championship to get the No. 2 seed, and then capped it off with the first wire-to-wire win (no ties) in the Tour Championship since Tom Watson in the first year of this 30-man showcase.
“Hats off to him,” Stricker said. “He played great. He played great in the playoffs. He won two of these events. He deserves to be champion.”
The PGA Tour is sending out ballots for the player of the year, with the result to be announced Friday. Stenson figures to be on the ballot with his two FedEx Cup playoff wins, and as FedEx Cup champion. It still might not be enough to trump Tiger Woods and his five victories, or the two-win seasons of major champions Phil Mickelson (British Open) or Adam Scott (Masters).
Spieth is a lock for rookie of the year. He started the season with no status on any tour, earned enough money to get his card for the 2013-14 season, won the John Deere Classic, shot 62 the last day of the Deutsche Bank Championship, made the Presidents Cup as a captain’s pick and closed with a 64 to put a brief scare into Stenson on the final day at East Lake. He wound up seventh in the FedEx Cup, the best ever for a rookie. Not bad for a 20-year-old Texan.
The tour hasn’t awarded comeback player of the year since 2010, and maybe that’s where Stenson fits in.
What a turnaround.
The first slump more than a decade ago was by far the most severe as Stenson had no idea where the ball was going. This time, it was a combination of a few health issues and a lot of bad golf, the latter cured by hard work.
Even so, the Swede was not even among the top 200 in the world going into the 2012 season. He now matches a career-best at No. 4 in the world rankings.
“It shows that I never give up,” Stenson said. “This is way beyond what I could have imagined.”
Spieth made him work for it.
The youngest player in Tour Championship history ran off four straight birdies on the back nine to pull within one shot after Stenson went well over the 14th green and made his long bogey. Stenson could hear the cheers and knew what he faced over the last four holes.
“I’m not just a pretty face. I can put 1 and 1 together,” the Swede said with his dry humor.
Stenson drilled a 3-wood into the fairway on the par-5 15th that set up an 8-foot birdie. Ahead of him on the 17th, Spieth was between clubs and chose to hammer a 9-iron that he caught heavy enough that it plugged in the front bunker. He made bogey and ended his threat.
“I was just looking up and seeing that I needed more instead of being satisfied with what happened,” Spieth said of his four straight birdies.
The last challenge came from Stricker, who rolled in an eagle putt on the 15th hole to get within two. Stricker saved par behind the 16th green, and then missed two birdie chances from about 18 feet on the last two holes for a 65. He tied for second with Spieth.
Stricker didn’t realize that making any of those last two putts would have been worth an extra $1 million for finishing second in the FedEx Cup. He only cared about winning, knowing he needed birdies and for Stenson to make a mistake.
“I knew the putt meant a lot. I didn’t know it meant that much,” he said with a smile. He finished third in the FedEx Cup and received a $2 million bonus.
Stenson, who finished at 13-under 267, became the first European to win the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup.
Woods, the No. 1 seed going into the Tour Championship, never recovered from his 73-71 start. He closed with a 67 to tie for 22nd, his worst finish ever at East Lake, and wound up second in the FedEx Cup. That still was worth a $3 million bonus.
Stenson, who only last week smashed a driver and his locker at the BMW Championship out of frustration brought on by playing so much golf, finally gets a break. He was headed to his home in Orlando, Fla., for a four-week break before returning in Shanghai.
Next up: A chance to become the first player to win the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour and the Race to Dubai on the European Tour in the same season.
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