By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AKRON, Ohio (Reuters) - Resurgent Swede Henrik Stenson could hardly be in a more different position at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational since he most recently competed in the World Golf Championships (WGC) event three years ago.
In 2010, a dispirited Stenson finished stone last in an elite field of 80 at Firestone Country Club and he later regretted playing in the tournament that week as he had been battling a lingering viral infection.
On Thursday, however, he buried all those painful memories by firing a five-under-par 65 in the opening round, continuing the excellent form he has produced over the past month.
"Five-under and bogey-free around here is not something you do every day, I guess," a smiling Stenson told reporters after making an explosive birdie-eagle start before finishing a stroke behind pacesetting American Webb Simpson.
"My game's moving in the right direction for sure."
Stenson, who has endured two lengthy slumps in form during an otherwise successful career that has earned him seven European Tour titles, arrived at Firestone in upbeat mood after recording top-10 finishes in his last three events.
"The final round in Munich, I played really, really solid tee to green," the 37-year-old said, referring to the BMW International Open where he tied for 10th place.
"Scottish Open, I had a great scoring round the second day but more than anything the third round was really good there tee to green. And then at the British I hit a lot of good shots but I didn't feel like I played perfect there by any means.
"But I felt very comfortable being out there and the way I played in the final round (at the British Open). That's something I will take with me for future big events if I can put myself in that position again."
Stenson, who won the biggest title of his career at the PGA Tour's 2009 Players Championship, tied for third in last month's Scottish Open before finishing joint second in the British Open at Muirfield the following week.
It has been a long road back for the Swede who struggled for form for much of 2001 and 2002, and again during his 2011 campaign.
"We all go through ups and downs," said Stenson. "Back in '11 and for parts of last year, as well, I wasn't in the big ones (elite events). We all want to win major championships, and you've got to be in the tournaments to start with.
"So that was the first goal, to get back into the top 50 to be in for all the big events," said the Swede, who has climbed to 19th in the world rankings after plummeting to 230th early last year. It's been a lot of hard work and a couple of changes.
"I went back to my old sports psychologist last summer and put a more of a long-term plan in place for all the different areas of the game. It's been some good work there that's starting to pay off big time."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Julian Linden)