ORLANDO -- Playing golf is like playing with matches: Eventually you will get your fingers burned. And it's most likely to happen just as you're reaching for the winner's check.
A year removed from one of the most disappointing losses of his career, Henrik Stenson still remembers the stinging in his hands after getting singed in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Despite a closing two-under 70, Stenson couldn't hold off a charging Matt Every, who fired a 66, including a 15-foot birdie at the 72nd hole, and beat him by a stroke to successfully defend his title.
Stenson fired a bogey-free five-under-par 67 Thursday at Bay Hill Club & Lodge to grab a share of the first-round lead, the seventh time in his last nine rounds at Bay Hill's Championship Course that he has broken 70. In his last three starts at Palmer's invitational, the powerful Swede has finished T-8, T-5 and second.
"This course really suits my game when I am playing well," said Stenson, 39, a native of Sweden who has a home in Orlando. "The strength of my game is middle and long irons, and with the reachable par 5s here, there really aren't many wedges. I feel like that's an advantage to me. You have to hit the ball really well around here. It's a place where I definitely feel like I can win."
He thought that was going to happen last year. Sitting at 16-under 200 through three rounds, the 2009 FedEx Cup champion was purring along nicely. Or so he thought. "I definitely felt like I had one hand on the trophy," he recalls. "That might have been one of the toughest losses I've ever had. I had other seconds last year [actually, three—at The Barclays, Deutsche Bank Championship and Tour Championship], and that happens. There are a lot of ways to lose. But this one really burns me up a bit still."
What Stenson remembers most is that his group was put on the clock coming down the stretch.
"I felt a little rushed, and I three-putted the 15th hole. Then I three-putted the next hole for a par and that was it," he said. "It was disappointing what happened. To walk away with second place was pretty tough to take because I left two shots out there when there was no reason for that to happen. I shouldn't have let it get to me, but you do that and someone else is pouring in birdie putts, that's all it takes to lose out here. You can't afford to do that."
Ranked No. 7 in the world, Stenson is playing in just his third tournament of the year. He is coming off a T-11 at the Valspar Championship after making his 2016 debut with a T-28 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral. Interestingly, he opted to play this week but is skipping next week's WGC-Dell Match Play Championship. There is something, he said, about having a home game. There's also something about unfinished business.
The next step in his progression of finishes at Bay Hill is the prize that eluded him last year.
"I'm definitely trending in the right direction,” Stenson said. “I feel very comfortable on this golf course. You have to hit some really good iron shots around here, and I feel like that is a definite strength of my game. I’d really like to put a ‘one’ [first place] next to my name this year. And if not here, then maybe some other important tournament coming up.”