When Henrik Stenson walks into a room you can’t miss him. Not just because, at 1.88m, he’s one of the taller men on tour but for his personality. If Sweden’s most famous sporting export Bjorn Borg was nicknamed ‘Ice Borg’ due to his calm temperament, Stenson is the polar opposite. He is one of the more eccentric players on tour. A joker who gets serious when the hammer is down.
He can also be a bit tetchy when things don’t go his way. South Africans got a close-up of the Swede’s mood when he found a fairway bunker on the 18th during last year’s Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City. Unhappy with the way the bunker had been raked, giving him a tough lie that meant he had to lay up short of the green on the closing par four, he picked up his golf bag and angrily threw it to the ground.
Stenson made a bogey five on that hole, signed for a 70 and instead of being joint leader with Marc Leishman, was one shot behind going into the final round. Unlike 2008, where he went on to lift the big prize – Africa’s Major as they called it then – the Swede fell away on the Sunday to finish six shots back.
Stenson had finished 2008 at a career-high No 8 in the World Golf Ranking, and 12 months later he was still there. However, 2011 was where it all went wrong and he slipped to a scarcely believable 207 for a man with such iron-striking talent.
‘By the end of that year, I was fed up with playing poorly. I said, “Enough. I’ve got to do something about this.” I just wasn’t having it any more. It helped that I’d been through a bad slump before. In fact, it was much worse than 2011,’ Stenson explained.
It had been from 2001 to 2003 when the Swede’s game went haywire and for 24 months he couldn’t even break through the world’s top 300 and reached 500 at one point.
‘Things became pretty bad then. I was hitting it sideways. At the 2001 European Open, I walked off the K Club after nine holes. I was playing with Sandy Lyle and Miguel Angel Jimenez. We started on the 10th hole and I had to hit two provisional balls. We were looking for my ball on every other hole, and I shot something like 43 on the first nine. I said, “Guys, just focus on your games. This isn’t doing me or you any good.” I wished them good luck and walked off. Five years later, I was back at the K Club, playing on the winning Ryder Cup team.’
Stenson is now back where he belongs, nestled at No 5 in the World Ranking and a year that has been helped by winning first first Major at the age of 40, after winning one of golf’s most memorable final round duels, outlasting Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon in July to pick up The Open Championship’s Claret Jug.
Hopefully that will be the lingering image of him in the years going forward, although his antics in the 2009 WGC-CA Championship at Doral will take some beating. There, his tee shot at the 12th hole landed in some water but it was playable. ‘I was five under at the turn but my tee ball ended up on muddy ground in the water. I thought if I took a drop I’d be stuck under trees in thick rough, but if I can get out of the mud I could save one shot and maybe even get away with a par.
‘I was wearing a light yellow shirt and white trousers. The trousers had to go, as did my shoes and socks. Then I thought I may as well save the shirt too. I didn’t have my rain gear as it doesn’t rain much in Miami and played the shot in my briefs. I couldn’t believe the publicity one shot got and I’ve literally signed thousands of pictures of it.’
The big Swede recovered well from his 2011 troubles, so much so that in 2013 he was considered the best player in the world, even if his ranking didn’t tell that story. Stenson became the first man to win the European Tour’s Race to Dubai and the PGA Tour’s FedExCup in the same season.
That year he won the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, the Tour Championship and the Deutsche Bank Championship, finished second at The Open, third at The PGA Championship and fourth at the Nedbank Challenge.
In the Global Golf Post, correspondent John Hopkins wrote at the time: ‘Henrik Stenson is a knot of contradictions, a naturally left-handed man who plays golf right-handed, a man whose eyes shrink in bright light yet plies his trade in that same light. But there can be no contradicting those of his peers in Dubai last week who said he deserved to be called the best golfer in the world.’
The BBC Golf Correspondent Iain Carter said: ‘An indication of Henrik Stenson’s current domination of the golfing world is the fact his caddie now drives a Ferrari.’
In total he has won 19 tournaments around the world, including 11 on the European Tour and five on the US Tour. South Africa is one of his favourite stomping grounds and apart from a record at the Nedbank Golf Challenge which reads second, fourth, first, second, fourth, second, he also won the 2012 SA Open, holding off George Coetzee.
However, his finest moment came at Royal Troon.
The records fell as he and Mickelson went head to head on the final Sunday, combining for a betterball score of 59, with 14 birdies and an eagle.
Stenson himself closed out the win by three shots as the American went for broke over the closing couple of holes and paid the price, and his 264 constituted the lowest 72-hole total in Major history, while at 20 under par he equalled world No 1 Jason Day’s lowest rounds to par in a Major. The Sunday 63 was also the joint lowest final round in Major history, tying with Johnny Miller’s tally at the 1973 US Open.
At the PGA Championship the Swede again found himself in contention heading into the final round, although he slipped back into the pack and eventually tied for seventh behind the fourth maiden Major winner of the year, Jimmy Walker.
‘I knew this was going to be my time,’ Stenson said after kissing the Claret Jug for the world’s photographers. ‘But it’s not something you want to run around and shout about. We managed to pull away from the rest of the field and we both played some great golf.
‘It makes it even more special to beat a competitor like Phil. He’s been one of the best to play the game, and certainly in the past 20 years. So to come out on top after such a fight with him over these four days, it makes it even more special. I knew he wasn’t going to back down. I knew I had to keep on pushing and he wasn’t going to give it to me, so I had to pull away. I’m just delighted I managed to do that with a couple of birdies at the right time on the final stretch,’ he said.
And how did he celebrate? His caddie, Gareth Lord, knows the golfer best. ‘He will get on his boat in Copenhagen, then sail into Malmo with his wife and three children. Nothing outlandish. He is a family man, that’s what makes him tick,’ he predicted, correctly so as it turned out.
In Stenson’s victory, Lord had lost a bet. A mutual friend of Lord and Stenson agreed on a bet more than a year ago, that the caddie would have to give up smoking if and when the Swede won a Major. ‘We were on the 7th tee on the Sunday, I was drawing on a cigarette,’ Lord recalled. ‘Henrik said: “Enjoy that. You have about two and a half hours left.”’
At the age of 40 he is holding the torch for the ‘oldies’ whose sport has been invaded by the youngsters. Day is still only 28, world No 2 Dustin Johnson is 32, Jordan Spieth is 23 and Rory McIlroy, all of whom are above Stenson in the rankings, is 27.
Jack Nicklaus, considered the greatest golfer ever with his 18 Major titles, was effusive in his praise.
‘I was fortunate to watch every second of today’s final round of the Open Championship and I thought it was fantastic,’ Nicklaus said. ‘Phil Mickelson played one of the best rounds I have ever seen played in the Open and Henrik Stenson just played better – he played one of the greatest rounds I have ever seen.
‘Phil certainly has nothing to be ashamed of because he played wonderfully. Henrik played well from beginning to end. He drove the ball well, his iron game was great, his short game was wonderful and his putting was great. Henrik was simply terrific.’
It all left Stenson and his army of supporters with a fuzzy feeling and in the mood for more. Unlike Day, Johnson, Spieth and McIlroy, who all withdrew from the Olympic golf competition due to fears over the Zika mosquito virus, the big Swede had no such concerns. ‘I’m not afraid of mosquitos. I’m more afraid of bears,’ he tweeted a month before the Rio Games were to start and he arrived in Brazil as the highest-ranked available player in the world. Simply having him tee it up in the field of 60 gave the battered sport some credibility and two of the four Major winners of 2016, the other being Masters champion Danny Willett, were around to boost the profile of the event.
We’re not sure what Stenson got up to while he was in Rio, but the chances are he would have had a lot of fun after a watershed year in which the Major monkey is off his back.
He has always been seen as one of the practical jokers on the tour, a 40-year-old going on 21. ‘I’ve always had a sick sense of humour,’ he once said. ‘I’m a Dumb and Dumber kind of guy. Growing up in Sweden, my friends and I were always pulling pranks.
‘One time our neighbour bought a TV that used the same remote control as ours, so we’d stand outside his house and change the channels when he was watching something. The guy would be yelling at his TV, so frustrated that he was ready to throw it out the window. It was hilarious.’
He has also taken his brand of humour to the professional circuit. He recalls one of his favourite moments. ‘Once I was in Switzerland, staying in a hotel that had these V-shaped balconies set close together, so it was easy to get from one balcony to the other. Carl Pettersson and Olle Karlsson were staying in the next room. I could hear them talking. I thought, “I can give them a good scare.” I put on a hoodie, pulled it tight over my head and crawled over to their balcony. The window was open, and I ripped open the blinds, burst into their room and yelled, “Give me the f***ing money!” They practically jumped out of bed. One of them was reaching for the nightstand lamp to throw at me.’
Such is life for the gentle giant who is now reaping the benefits after paying his dues over the years.