Nerveless Stenson defies late charge by Els and Woods
Monday 05 February 2007
Henrik Stenson yesterday joined the exclusive club of European golfers who have put one over on Tiger Woods when emerging as the last golfer left standing on a mouthwatering day in the desert. After this startling success the Swede will never again solely be remembered as the man who holed the winning putt in the Ryder Cup.
The action started with a sandstorm and finished with a stampede as player after player put themselves forward to lift the Dubai Classic's prestigious title. There was Ross Fisher, the young Englishman who removed the "unknown" prefix from his name with a showing of guts and class that defied his inexperience; there was Ernie Els, desperate to kick-start his much-publicised three-year quest to return to the top of the world rankings; and then there was the world No 1 himself.
Naturally, Woods' defeat was to have most resonance for the simple fact that he rarely loses when in contention in the final round. Indeed, the statistics prove what a freakish result this was, being the first strokeplay tournament since last June's US Open in which he did not finish in the top two. But the 31-year-old did come third here - two behind Stenson and one behind Els - and that means it is 12 events back to the last time he was not on the podium.
Even in defeat, Woods' legend continues to grow. There is a very good reason for that. With respect to Stenson's gallant 68 for a 19-under-par total, it was the Tiger fightback that added the edge to proceedings. With Roger Federer and Michael Schumacher in attendance - those other two most recent recruits to the sporting pantheon - Woods produced a charge when seemingly lame. It had seemed so unlikely by the side of the 11th green, when Woods inexplicably fluffed his ball into the bunker just three feet in front of him. This second consecutive bogey had removed him four shots from the pace and little was going right.
Then came a birdie on the 13th and a 30-footer brought him another on the par-three 14th. But it was the trademark 20-yard pitch into the cup on the 15th that really raised the temperature and when he zeroed it in to within six feet on the 16th he looked on the brink of sharing the lead. Alas, the putt slipped by, just like so many of Woods' did here and his chance was gone. By the time he skulked off that green, Stenson had gone a further shot clear and effectively set up a straight final-group, final-hole shoot-out between he and Els. Together with Fisher, Woods was left to reflect on what could have been.
If anything, the young Englishman had just held an even bigger shout than his playing partner. After 13 holes, the 26-year-old from Ascot had a one-shot lead and was apparently the competitor striking it with most clarity and conviction. But inevitably the tension got to the golfer ranked 294 in the world and after back-to-back bogeys on the 16th and 17th he had to be satisfied with fifth. But satisfied he was.
"I feel I can walk away from here with my head held high," he said. "I stood toe to toe with Tiger and was actually a couple of shots up on him at one stage. I said on Friday that I felt I belong out here and today I think I've proved myself against the best. I'm well proud."
So, unsurprisingly, was Stenson. The 30-year-old lives in Dubai and spoke of the "joy" of winning his second "home" tournament. To do so, he had to produce a back-nine of 33 that was grandstanded with a nerveless approach to the last. Holding a one-shot lead, but with Els at the back of the par-five green in two, Stenson knew he had to get down from 80 yards in two. The exquisite lob-wedge left him a 10-footer, which was dispatched with remarkable composure by a man who apparently has everything it takes to end Europe's seven-year major void. "Of course, there is great satisfaction in winning a tournament with Tiger Woods in it," said Stenson, who has Nick Faldo's former caddie, Fanny Sunesson, on his bag.
"But it gives me just as much satisfaction to play with Ernie Els in all four rounds and beat him down the stretch. With the wind early on, it was tough out there and I just had to hang on. I had a bit of an upset on the ninth hole, but I was pleased the way I came through."
That particular "upset" involved a row with rules officials who demanded he identify his ball that had bizarrely become lodged on the top of a hospitality tent. That involved clambering on to a marshal's shoulders and from there on to scaffolding. "I felt like a performer on 'cirque de soleil'," said Stenson. If his handling of Tiger is anything to go by, Stenson might consider joining up as a Lion tamer.
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