-- TROON, Scotland -- After witnessing a virtuoso performance that included him posting the lowest score on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at The Open -- the last of those being only the second-ever final-round 63 in a major by the champion -- it's difficult to imagine Henrik Stenson ever struggling to mash laser beam-like drives deep down the fairways or launch brilliant iron shots onto the greens or roll seemingly magnetized putts directly into the heart of the cups.
It hasn't always been so easy for him, though. In fact, there have been times in his career that it was damned near impossible.
Fifteen years ago, Stenson was a 25-year-old up-and-comer, the type of guy we might have thought would someday contend for a Claret Jug. He won his first career European Tour title in May that year, but by midsummer, his game had suffered a sharp decline. Following two missed cuts, his performance at the European Open was an embarrassing low point. After spraying shots all over the golf course, he walked off before completing his round.
It took more than two full years for Stenson to round back into form, with the physical, mental, technical and physiological setbacks taking their toll.
Ask him these days and he'll call that the toughest slump of his career, which only highlights the fact that it wasn't the only slump he has endured. Ten years after the first one, his game again took a dramatic turn for the worse. Already a Players Championship winner, major championship contender and top-five player in the world, he ultimately sank to 230th at his lowest point.
All of which should help explain the story behind Stenson's brilliant triumph at Royal Troon on Sunday afternoon.
This wasn't simply one of the game's best players finally cashing in his opportunity to claim a major. This was a tale of resilience, of competitiveness, of determination, that never allowed him to give up during those darkest days.
"If I didn't believe," he said after his record-setting performance, with the gleaming Claret Jug at his side, "I wouldn't be sitting here."
He believed. He believed in himself when his game was clearly flailing, and he believed in himself when he embarked on his latest, greatest chance to finally win a major after seven previous top-five finishes.
Stenson didn't elaborate too much after the victory, but he did allow that he had a premonition of his fate this week. He didn't just think he could win. He thought he would win.
"I felt like this was going to be my turn," he explained. "It's not something you want to run around and shout, but I felt like this was going to be my turn. I knew I was going to have to battle back if it wasn't, but I think that was the extra self-belief that made me go all the way this week."
If his entire career has been a picture of conviction, then Stenson's final round was the final touch that turned that picture into a masterpiece. His score of 8-under 63 -- just the 29th ever in major history -- included 10 birdies on a course where only one other player finished within two touchdowns of his overall final score. He joined Johnny Miller as the only winners to post that number on a Sunday. And his total score of 264 was the lowest aggregate total in a major.
This round, though, was less about statistics than technical artistry. Stenson played Royal Troon like an orchestra conductor deftly building toward a crescendo.
"We'll never see perfection on a links like that ever again in our lives," opined Nick Faldo, himself a three-time Open champion. "That was links perfection. I've never seen anything like that. It was incredible."
Stenson's weekend playing partner, the man who traded haymakers with him throughout the afternoon only to wobble on the canvas at the end, was similarly complimentary of the stripe show for which he had a front-row seat.
"I've always thought that he is one of the best ball strikers in the game and that major championships are perfectly suited for him," said Phil Mickelson, who settled for the 11th runner-up finish of his major career. "I knew that he would ultimately come through and win. I'm happy that he did. I'm disappointed that it was at my expense."
Mickelson isn't the only one who knew Stenson would win one at some point.
It was Stenson who had that feeling, that sense, that this was his time. After years of slumps and close calls and perseverance and resilience, he knew he was finally ready to reach that pinnacle.
"I just played some great golf," he said. "For some reason, I felt like this is my time -- and it was."
With those rocketlike drives and brilliant iron shots and seemingly magnetized putts that so often went directly into the heart of the cups, Stenson made it all look so easy this week.
To understand his story, though, is to know that none of it ever came easy. It never did.