The Swede’s previous victory in South Africa came in 2008 when he soared to a nine-stroke victory in the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City. It ushered in a golden period for Stenson as he moved to fourth in the world rankings and won The Players Championship (often called the fifth major) at Sawgrass in Florida in May 2009.
His ball-striking was superb and it seemed he would become one of the world’s dominant golfers. Instead, his fortunes went the other way and he did not win again until Sunday’s gripping final day on a hot, stormy East Rand afternoon.
“It’s been three-and-a-half years since my last win. That’s so long you begin to think ‘is there ever going to be another one?’ But you need to put a lot in to get decent results out,” Stenson said after his drought-ending victory.
The 36-year-old struggled with a pneumonia virus in 2010 and just poor form in 2011, but he has also heaped more pressure on himself by playing on both sides of the Atlantic in a daunting playing schedule.
But he looked a true champion on Sunday as he sealed victory in the closing stages of the final round.
He and George Coetzee were neck-and-neck on 14-under-par as they made the turn, Stenson having double-bogeyed the par-three ninth after hooking his tee-shot into the water hazard.
But the world number 113 birdied the 10th to make the perfect start to the back nine and two more birdies, at the 16th and 17th holes, were the coup de gráce.
Coetzee had birdied the 11th to restore parity, but he bogeyed the par-three 15th after his tee shot went just over the green. He chipped to seven feet but missed his putt for par.
The South African had more problems on the par-five 16th as his drive faded away to finish a good 50m behind Stenson’s. Coetzee could not go for the green in two over the water and had to lay up, while Stenson’s second was healthily positioned just short of the green to the right, from where he chipped to three feet and made birdie.
Coetzee could only make par and Stenson then birdied the short par-four 17th, chipping well from the bunker in front of the green, to allow himself a victory parade down the 18th. Stenson’s one-under-par 71 left him with an overall score of 17-under-par 271, while Coetzee finished on 14-under 274.
“I knew it would not be easy because we had a pretty firm breeze out there and I had a couple of guys on my tail. George started well, then had a couple of bogeys, but I then threw two shots away on the ninth so we were all square at the turn. But I was not panicking, I knew I had to just keep on playing my own game and keep creating chances. It was all very open on the back nine, but I managed to get a grip from 15 to 18,” Stenson said.
“We all have our ups and downs as golfers, I also had a big slump between 2001 and 2003, and the hardest thing is not to get frustrated. Sometimes it’s things outside golf – your health or your family – which make it difficult to get your practise and playing schedule organised because things are pulling you in various directions. But you just have to bounce back and learn from your mistakes,” Stenson said.
Charl Schwartzel had begun the final round 10 shots behind Stenson, but a brilliant front nine of 32, followed by another two birdies at the 11th and 12thholes, saw him surge into contention just two shots behind the leaders. But his charge was cut short by bogeys at the 15th and 16th holes and Schwartzel had to settle for fifth place on 11-under-par.
Another Swede, Magnus Carlsson, had begun the final day tied with Coetzee three behind Stenson, but he slipped down the leaderboard with a birdie-less 76.
Thomas Aiken and Germany’s Martin Kaymer produced top-class final rounds of 67 to finish in a tie for third on 13-under-par, while defending champion Hennie Otto secured a top-10 place with a magnificent 10-under-par 62, a course record that was bogey-free and included eight birdies and an eagle.
It was a phenomenal comeback from Otto after a 75 in the third round, the fiery South African playing the last 12 holes without a putter after he ditched the offending short stick into the water surrounding the 15th green, having begun his round on the 10th. Otto had to putt thereafter with a wedge.
Branden Grace endured a catastrophic weekend, shooting 78-77 to finish second-from-last on eight-over-par, while 2008 champion Richard Sterne shot a 70 on Sunday for a solid top-20 finish.
There was a lot of pressure on the young Coetzee, who has finished in the top 10 on seven occasions this year but is yet to win on the European Tour. Sadly for the 26-year-old, the monkey is still on his back, but Coetzee did not play badly on the final day, shooting a 71.
Stenson’s ball-striking was just too good and the suave Swede had some words of comfort for his vanquished foe.
“I’m sure George is disappointed, but he played well and he will get that win in time. You have to put in a lot of effort to win, keep positioning yourself to win… and then sometimes you win three very quickly,” was Stenson’s verbal hand on Coetzee’s shoulder.