NORTON, Mass. (AP) — Henrik Stenson didn’t need a big trophy to prove himself that he belonged among the elite in golf.
After enduring the second slump of his career — the latest a product of bad play more than a lost swing — he began to turn the corner late last year by winning the South African Open. He was back in all the majors again for the first time since 2010. And he was playing better than anyone in the summer.
A runner-up to Phil Mickelson in the British Open and to Tiger Woods in a World Golf Championship. A tie for third in the PGA Championship.
The 37-year-old Swede broke through on Labor Day with his best performance of the year to win the Deutsche Bank Championship.
“It’s been long, hard work getting back to this place,” Stenson said. “Playing as well as I’ve done in these last couple of months, there’s no magic, no quick fix. It’s just hard work. It’s been a good four months, and I hope I can keep it going.”
He started the final round two shots behind Sergio Garcia, surged ahead with three straight birdies, came out even sharper after a two-hour rain delay, and put away Steve Stricker by holing a bunker shot on the 17th hole.
Stenson closed with a 5-under 66 for a two-shot victory over Stricker. He didn’t refer to it so much as validation as “icing on the cake.”
“I was longing for a win, and I got it,” said Stenson, who tied a tournament record at 22-under 262 on the rain-softened TPC Boston.
He wasn’t the only guy who felt like a winner, nor was he the only player who felt the nerves.
The Deutsche Bank Championship, the second of four FedEx Cup playoff events, had a little something for everyone on a wild and rainy Monday. It starts with Stenson, who moved to No. 1 in the FedEx Cup and is assured a clear shot at the $10 million prize at the Tour Championship.
Coming out of the rain delay, the focus shifted to the top 70 players in the FedEx Cup standings who would advance to the third playoff event at Conway Farms north of Chicago in two weeks.
Brendan Steele thought his season was over until he birdied his last four holes, the last one with a 2-iron onto the green at the par-5 18th. Steele knew his only chance was to tie with Ernie Els — he was three points ahead in the standings going into the weeks — and they were in the same group.
“I did everything that I can do, especially on a day that wasn’t going my way for a long time,” Steele said.
Els made par on the 18th and both finished at 12-under 272. Els figured he would be the odd man out with so many players still on the golf course, all of whom in position to drop him lower in the standings.
“It feels like I just missed the cut,” Els said when he finished.
But the Big Easy was given a big reprieve. K.J. Choi made a bogey on the par-5 18th. Charley Hoffman made bogey on the 17th. Kevin Chappell missed an 8-foot birdie putt on the last hole. That combination was enough for Els to grab the 70th spot by a fraction of a point.
Stricker’s third runner-up finish this year allowed him to move into the top 10 and qualify for the Presidents Cup team, despite playing a part-time schedule. That put the 10th spot up for grabs between Webb Simpson and Zach Johnson, who were playing together on the other side of the course.
They were tied at 8 under — big advantage to Simpson — until the former U.S. Open champion dropped two shots on the last four holes. Johnson faced a 25-foot birdie putt on his last hole that determined whether he made the team, and he poured it in the middle.
Johnson last week gave up a chance to earn points by skipping The Barclays to be in his brother’s wedding.
Lost in all this commotion was Jordan Spieth, the 20-year-old Texan dressed in a shirt with the Dallas Cowboys’ silver-and-blue colors. He went birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle at the end of his round for a 62 right before the rain delay.
With such soft conditions, his 17-under 267 was never going to hold up. Spieth wound up tied for fourth, and is No. 10 in the FedEx Cup standings. He is assured of becoming the first player since Woods in 1996 to start a season with no status and reach the Tour Championship. Woods, however, did it in seven tournaments.
Whether it was enough to make the Presidents Cup as a captain’s pick won’t be decided until Fred Couples announces his selections on Wednesday.
Stenson’s win was only part of the high drama Monday, so much that Woods became an afterthought. He closed with a 73 and tied for 65th. The best image of him all day was walking back out to the course after a rain delay with he and his 6-year-old daughter dressed in matching red.
All that mattered to Stenson was the trophy.
It looked like it might go down to the last hole when Stricker, two shots behind, reached the par-5 18th in two and faced a long eagle putt. Behind him, Stenson finally blinked and pulled his approach into a bunker on the 17th.
Right when the tournament was in doubt, Stenson holed the bunker shot to effectively wrap up the win. Stricker could hear the roar.
“I just kind of rolled my eyes,” Stricker said. “But I told my caddie that he’s been knocking at the door for a couple of months. And he’s been playing some great golf. … Good for him. Great shot. Like I say, he’s been knocking at the door for quite some time and finally got his win.”
Stenson got his win. Stricker made the Presidents Cup team. Els got a reprieve.
Garcia, meanwhile, fell to 3-8 when having at least a share of the 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour. He closed with a 73 and tied for fourth.
Stenson was outside the top 200 in the world at the start of last season, and this win took him up to No. 6 — almost where he was when he captured the Match Play Championship six years ago. Back where to he felt like he belonged the whole time.