SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- The sound, as difficult as it may be to describe, snaps you to attention. It is recognizable for being different, rare. Those who follow the game closely, and certainly those who play it at a high level, are keenly aware of this sweet noise, one that emanates when clubface meets golf ball.
The term "ball striker'' is used loosely in golf, but by every definition Henrik Stenson fits the description. The newly crowned Champion Golfer of the Year has long been lauded for has ability to hit a golf ball with such precision as to evoke awe.
None of this would seem a surprise given the way Stenson, 40, navigated his way around Royal Troon to win The Open and give Sweden its first male major champion.
Stenson was machine-like in his efficiency, shooting 20 under par and setting a major championship scoring record of 264. Were it not for two 3-putts over the final 18 holes, Stenson's record-tying score for a single round in a major (63) might have been something truly special, even more remarkable.
Yet as Stenson makes the quick turnaround to this week's PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club, it is interesting to note how bad he once was, how little ability he had to do anything close to what he accomplished in Scotland.
"He couldn't hit the world, let alone the fairway,'' said Pete Cowen, Stenson's longtime instructor. "And it could be with every club in his bag. He could hit 5-irons out of bounds, 7-irons out of bounds. There are three important things, and they are to start the ball on line, and have the correct flight and spin. Henrik couldn't start it on line, and then you have no idea where it is going to finish.''
Stenson turned pro in 1998 and found some early success on the European Tour. But at the European Open -- at the K Club in Ireland -- his game, his ego and his confidence took a hit 15 years ago, one from which it is amazing he recovered.
Playing in July 2001 with Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sandy Lyle, Stenson came to the 13th hole and hit a massive slice that would not have been so alarming if he had not hit a massive hook on the same hole a day prior. Stenson had no idea where the ball was going, and was so spooked by his lack of form that he withdrew.
"After nine holes, I told the guys they'd be better off without me,'' Stenson recalled. "The balls were all over the place.''
Two months prior, Stenson had won the Benson & Hedges International tournament, but now he wondered if he'd ever be able to compete again.
Stenson was introduced to Cowen, an England-based teacher who runs a golf academy in South Yorkshire. He had toiled on the European Tour himself and had put together a small stable of European Tour players. Cowen now claims six major champions in the past seven years, including Masters winner Danny Willett.
"[Stenson] didn't have a game at that time,'' Cowen, 65, recalled. "It was a total rebuild. He had to start from scratch again. And it took us two and a half years, really, to get into it.''
As often happens, Stenson actually regressed. In 2002, he made just eight cuts in 22 events. There were times he played with his eyes closed so he could focus on releasing the club properly. There were instances when he wondered if he should continue to pursue professional golf.
"He never really said that, only thought it,'' Cowen said. "Only after he got it back did he tell me. You would too if you were hitting it as badly as he did. There was no enjoyment in playing, no enjoyment going on the golf course. We gave him the understanding of what he needed to get back. It was a long, hard job.''
The deal Cowen makes with his clients is to be paid a percentage of their prize money; he does not charge them a fee per session, nor a set amount per week or per year. So working with Stenson meant some bleak times for the instructor as well.
"It was two and a half years of nothing, basically, but that was my commitment to him,'' Cowen said. "You're not winning anything so I can't charge you anything, so let's keep going until it happens. We saw bits of sparks in there occasionally, but not very often. He just persevered.''
Stenson slowly made his way back among the game's elite, winning in 2004, earning a spot on the European Ryder Cup team in 2006, joining the PGA Tour in 2007, and winning the WGC-Match Play. He claimed his then-biggest victory at the 2009 Players Championship, shooting a final-round 66 at TPC Sawgrass to win by 4 strokes over Ian Poulter.
Stenson would endure another slump soon after -- falling out of the top 200 in the world -- some of it due to financial setbacks suffered in the Allen Stanford scandal. Stenson was said to have lost a sum well into seven figures and approaching eight figures.
"He just lost his confidence,'' Cowen said. "But that was a walk in the park compared to the first one. He always knew he was going to come back.''
Cowen was there for all of it, as he has been with numerous players. He has worked with the likes of Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and dozens of others, counting more than 200 professional victories among them.
"Pete's been teaching a very modern, dynamic method for the last 20 years, really,'' said McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open. "It's very technically correct, very dynamic, very physical. Lots of leg work. Lots of glute strength. You can see that in Henrik Stenson's golf swing.
"It's very loaded, creates a lot of pressure into the back of the ball. Pete's been working with Henrik for some 15 years now. And when you look at Henrik's swing, you can see a lot of Pete's methodology. It's very relative in today's world, a modern golf swing, a strong leg-oriented golf swing. And obviously, he's turned Henrik into the complete player. He's been a complete player for the last five to eight years and it's great to see him finally get what he deserves, a major championship.''
After rebounding from his second slump, Stenson went on to capture the 2013 FedEx Cup title (winning the Tour Championship) and the European Tour's Race to Dubai (winning the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai).
After that victory, Stenson was a frequent contender, but didn't win again until last month at the BMW International in Germany. He also had posted seven top-4s in majors without a victory, and was the highest-ranked player in the world without a major title.
Stenson himself felt it was time, and shooting the lowest round for the final three days of The Open was testament to his ability and confidence.
"I owe him a lot,'' Stenson said of Cowen. "He's put in so much hard work with me over the years. I'm pleased to have him by my side.''
Warming up prior to the final round at Royal Troon, Stenson was hitting everything perfectly. Cowen knew his work was done. There was little left to do but see his longtime pupil off to the first tee, from where he proceeded to produce the round of a lifetime.
Cowen didn't stick around to watch, opting instead to get in his car and head south back to England. He listened to the final round on the radio, from where he could undoubtedly hear that sweet sound of the club meeting the ball, one he had worked so hard to help produce.