Henrik Stenson was off to his now-traditional turbo-charged start at the Tour Championship on Saturday, and an elite field was becoming but confetti in his slipstream.
His lead compounded by the minute: Four shots. Five. Seven. Good heavens, nine by the time he made the turn of his third round. He had gone past the point of beating these guys and had begun the process of lapping them.
Then the rain picked up.
Ah, blessed rain. It does make the grass grow and the leads shrink.
The steady Stenson suddenly began visiting some of the exotic locations on the other side of the gallery ropes. Where before he was humming, now he was hiccuping. By the time he made the squishy walk to clubhouse, his lead was back to a more reality-based number, four strokes, over Dustin Johnson.
“I’ll choose to look at it from the bright side,” Stenson said. “I started the day with a four-shot lead, and I still got it. So that’s all that really matters.”
Despite the wild mood swings of his Saturday, Stenson still finished with his third sub-par round of the tournament, a 69, to go to 11 under overall. Johnson, the last player to make this 30-man field, put himself in contention for at least the Tour Championship title, if not the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus, with a 67 (7 under for the tournament).
Nobody’s been able to get close enough to Stenson to much perturb him this week, a bit of a shock considering that only the best were invited to this party.
Some of that is Stenson’s doing. “That’s not a surprise because of the way he’s been playing for the past couple months. Really, from the British Open on, he’s been playing consistently well,” said Tiger Woods, the No. 1 FedEx Cup seed who is 14 strokes back of Stenson.
Some chose to lay the lack of good theater at the feet of 29 other players. “I’m really not surprised by Henrik’s form. I am surprised by the rest of the field,” said Steve Stricker, who is in third, a distant six shots back of Stenson. “It seems like a lot of lackluster play. I think guys are flat. It seems like a lot of guys are tired.
“Henrik obviously is playing great. If he wasn’t there, we’d have a great tournament lined up.”
One player gets a pass. Adam Scott began Saturday four shots back of Stenson in second. He also began the morning with an IV tube stuck in his arm, seldom a good sign. Dehydrated by a night of dealing with stomach flu, Scott played on, but obviously was weakened. He shot a 4-over 74.
Stenson was not giving playing partner Scott any relief at the start of Saturday’s round. As he has throughout the tournament, Stenson scorched the front side, shooting a 4-under 31 (he is 13 under on the front through three rounds).
Tee times were moved up more than two hours to try to beat an advancing storm, and Stenson remained relatively dry at the start. But then the rain began to fall more heavily, and we learned that for all of Stenson’s many gifts, he is not much of a mudder.
Hitting out of a refreshment area at No. 10, mingling with the hospitality-tent patrons at No. 17, three-putting the final hole, Stenson discovered what life was like for the rest of this field. His four bogeys over the last nine holes were twice the number of those during his previous 45.
“You lose a little bit of momentum,” Stenson said. “It’s just hard to find your rhythm again when you’re jumping in and out from underneath an umbrella.”
Johnson wouldn’t have even been here if Matt Jones’ 10-foot birdie putt on the final hole of last week’s BMW Championship hadn’t lipped out. That kept Johnson 30th in the FedEx Cup standings and preserved the final spot in this tournament.
While it is all but impossible that Johnson could win that large FedEx Cup bonus, he was promoted Saturday to next-best hope to infuse some drama into the tournament component of this week. “I’m just hitting the ball solid, hitting the ball where I’m looking. If I can keep driving it straight, then I’m going to give him a run (Sunday),” Johnson said.
Stenson possibly can win the $10 million without winning the Tour Championship. Whether that alters his approach to the final round is to be seen.
“I don’t see myself having to play overly aggressive. It’s going to be up to the other guys to try and catch up,” he said. “If I can keep the ball in play and keep on giving myself chances, I’m not the one who has to make the extra birdies.”
Nor, much to his relief, according to Sunday’s forecast, will he need to bring his rain gear.
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