PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – In the pantheon of memorable Swedish athletes, there is tennis great Bjorn Borg, alpine skier Ingemar Stenmark, boxer Ingemar Johansson, golfer Annika Sorenstam and, thanks to the Internet, the dude who stripped down to his underwear on the golf course.
Surely you’ve seen the famous clip from March's CA Championship: a man in white boxer briefs standing in calf-deep water, swinging a golf club and watching mud and his golf ball fly. That is why you may faintly recognize photos of the guy kissing a crystal trophy after winning The Players Championship here on Sunday.
Same dude. Henrik Stenson. Only this time he was fully clothed, which is why it’ll still be easier to find the pictures of him swinging a 7-iron while wearing only skivvies and a golf glove.
“I thought I was going to see the picture a few times and get a few nice comments and so on," Stenson said.
Instead, he became the golfer who stripped down to his underwear and suddenly faced a lifelong challenge: getting people, especially those who know little about golf, to take him seriously.
Shortly after that incident, he called a sports psychologist. After all, only someone with proper medical credentials could understand what had driven Stenson to take off his clothes rather than take a one-stroke penalty when his ball settled in the water. Only Stenson called Bob Rotella over something that made him more anxious than standing in front of fellow golfers and spectators while using what one wiseacre referred to as his “strip club."
The more vexing club was his driver. Which made what happened here Sunday almost as shocking as those photos. Over the weekend, Stenson hit 26 of 28 fairways and finished off the field with a scintillating bogey-free round of 6-under 66. Even more impressive considering he started the day five shots off the lead, won the tournament by four and Tiger Woods – expected to contend Sunday – finished seven behind Stenson after a wretched 1-over 73 in the final round.
For the moment, one had to take him seriously. After all, he ranks among the world’s top 10 players. He’s played for Europe in the Ryder Cup. Now he’s twice held off the strongest field in golf, first with a victory at the 2007 World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship and now The Players.
But rather than live down his moment of infamy, on Sunday Stenson seemed equipped to use it as skillfully as he used his 3-wood here. He exhibited a sense of humor as dry as TPC Sawgrass's sun-baked greens during the post-tournament news conference.
Question: Any consideration to strip down and jump into the lake for old time’s sake?
Stenson: I’ll save it for a day with a bit of a drizzle.
Question: What degree is your 3-wood, and how far do you hit it?
Stenson: It’s 13 degrees, and I hit it far.
Question: Do you have your schedule set going into the U.S. Open, and if so what is it?
Stenson: Yeah, I’m going to the Bahamas tomorrow, practice some bunker shots there for a week.
Stenson is planning to spend a week in the Bahamas, but you’re less likely to see him practicing bunker shots than on the beach in his skivvies – or, one hopes, a bathing suit. He’s handled all of the attention about the underwear photos as well as he handled this course.
“It’s just going to give me a lot of confidence going into the majors," said Stenson, the first Swede to win The Players. “And obviously if I can play as well as I did today, I surely can do it on Sunday at the majors."
At a tournament the week after Stenson became an Internet sensation, Woods arrived at the first tee and presented the Swede with an autographed pair of white boxers.
Considering how Stenson played Sunday, the USGA in six weeks may be presenting him with the U.S. Open trophy.