ORLANDO – Henrik Stenson has had his share of success at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, including a career-low 64 a year ago to take the first-round lead. But the transplanted Swede always seems to depart this event in his adopted hometown in frustration.
Yes, the 2018 edition started well, and he took the 54-hole into Sunday for the second time in four years – only to end up fourth as Rory McIlroy stormed to victory. Stenson had to settle for his fourth top-5 finish in five years.
When he opened Thursday with a 5-over-par 77 at Bay Hill Club, it appeared that the 2016 Open champion was simply cutting to the chase and getting disappointment out of the way early.
“I like hockey, but hockey sticks on the scorecard are not good,” he said drolly with a grin.
It also appeared to continue a trend of poor showings to start the year. Before finishing T-54 at the WGC-Mexico Championship, Stenson missed the cut in all three Middle Eastern events on the European Tour.
All he did on Friday was improve 11 strokes, firing a bogey-free 66. A quick range session with instructor Peter Cowen helped. So did extra motivation.
Stenson this week is hosting four junior players from Sweden who just finished ninth in Nick Faldo’s Major Champions Invitational that was completed Friday at Bella Collina Golf Club in nearby Montverde. The four qualified to represent Sweden via their play last summer in the Stenson Sunesson Junior Challenge, a tournament Stenson and his former caddie Fanny Sunesson host annually in their home country.
Well, Sunesson is sort of his former caddie. She has been pressed into service this weekend because his longtime friend, Marcus Larsson, caddied on Saturday for Stenson’s nine-year-old son, Karl, in a U.S. Kids Golf event in St. Cloud, Fla.
After polishing off a 69 Saturday afternoon, Stenson was looking at his watch, trying to figure out where Karl might be in his round. “I’m very interested now to find out what’s going on,” he said just before he began to kibitz with the four junior players who followed him on his round that featured four birdies against a lone bogey.
Stenson showed up Friday morning determined to not miss the cut, which he has done only once at Bay Hill in 10 previous starts, in 2017.
“To be honest, I’ve got the four winners of our junior tournament here,” he said, “and … I spent some time with them earlier in the week, and they were coming out here today, and I thought about it. Tiger withdrew earlier in the week, if I’m missing the cut, what are the kids going to do? They’d have to stick with [Rory] McIlroy and [Rickie] Fowler and those guys. So I sucked it up for them and played a good round.”
Sunesson, who last caddied for Stenson full time in 2012, will be on the bag again Sunday when Stenson, at 4-under 212 and part of a massive logjam near the top of the leaderboard, will have an outside chance to turn the tables and capture the red cardigan sweater that goes with winning Palmer’s event.
“That was at least a couple percent in the back of my mind that I was going to feel bad with these kids here and I’m not playing,” said Stenson, who will have Larsson caddie for him at next week’s Players Championship. “I haven’t had the greatest start to the year, but I’ve been around enough to know you can turn it around. At least I’ve done some good things yesterday and today.”
Maybe the best thing he did was showing those kids how to not give up.