SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Henrik Stenson, still not even two weeks removed from the mountaintop life-changing experience of winning his first major title, is in position to achieve something arguably even tougher: Winning a second one.
The instant analysis is pretty consistent after every time someone wins a first major. It just about always says, “This is the breakthrough! This is going to open the floodgates!” When you look at it closely, there really are no floodgates.
Over the past 10 years, there have been 25 first-time major champions, including three in 2016, capped off by Stenson at Royal Troon the week before last. Despite the predictions of dominance in bloom, only seven of those guys have won at least one more: Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera, Padraig Harrington, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth. And only Harrington and McIlroy have won a third.
Fact is, there are too many golfers who are too good. Also, one tournament does not make someone Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus.
So Stenson has done well so far just to get himself near the top of the leader board, which he did by shooting a second consecutive 67 Friday to go 6-under for the PGA Championship, three strokes out of the lead. “I don’t know, maybe I’ll run out of steam at some point,” the 40-year-old from Sweden said after a resilient round at Baltusrol Golf Club. “But up until then, I’ll just keep trying my best.”
General assumptions suggest that a golfer finally wins a major, especially after having been in the chase for a long time, the pressure is off. But maybe the pressure gets turned up in an odd way. A level of greatness is expected. Or maybe the pressure is turned down too much. Perhaps the title causes a fellow to take his foot off the gas.
In a way, Stenson could be fortunate that the PGA follows the British Open so unnaturally close in this Olympics-condensed season. He has not had time to fully decompress. His clubs are still hot after that record-tying 63 Sunday in Scotland. When he was asked if he has a whole new outlook now that he has become a major winner, he said, “No, I think 63 on Sunday would work pretty well here, too.”
Who in golf thought Adam Scott would not win another major, or Justin Rose? There has been no Graeme McDowell era, nor an epoch featuring Webb Simpson or Louis Oosthuizen, Keegan Bradley or Jason Dufner. Many of us assumed Dustin Johnson was a favorite this week, but he is gone, having missed the cut at 9-over.
What Stenson has going for him is that aside from being good enough, he is both focused enough and relaxed enough. He has enjoyed the royal treatment a British Open champion receives, without taking himself too seriously.
“The reception that I’ve had has been fantastic. The fans have been cheering me on these first two days and in the practice rounds,” he said. “I have to say I’m 6-2 normally but I guess I feel 6-3 out there at the moment.”
Stature trumps height. That happens when you’re on top of the world. As long as he remains in contention, the other golfers have to wonder if he has another 63 up his sleeve on the weekend.
“I hope I might pick up half a shot on that come Sunday,” he said. “It’s no secret that I played really well at Troon and if I can put myself in position, I don’t know if I can scare anyone other than myself. But it’s a good thing to put yourself up there when you’re playing well.”
Then again, recent history sure shows that having won the last major doesn’t mean you’re going to win the next one.