For much of this year Henrik Stenson could have whacked a cricket ball round the golf course and still broken 70. There is a beautiful economy of effort when the ball is coming out of the middle, typified at the penultimate tournament of the European Tour’s inaugural Final Series in Turkey when Stenson strode on to the tee box, shaped a lump of earth into an alternative tee peg with his fairway metal, placed his ball neatly atop the mound then smashed it down the fairway in a textbook, arching draw. Thank you very much.
Tiger Woods is rarely discomfited on a golf course but even he must have felt a teeny bit reduced having to follow that, especially in the conventional use of a tee to launch his ball instead of nature’s sod, oh so casually commandeered. This is what Stenson can do when his game is on. And how it has been on since June: long, straight and fearless.
At other times in his career following Stenson around a course required a hard hat. At the start of last year he had slipped out of the world’s top 200. It was the second serious slump of his career and more worrying given his vintage. Troughs are not new to the golfing graph. Climbing back on the bike twice, the second time at 37, is not the norm among golf’s yipping, twitching, slicing basket cases.
This is Stenson’s inimitable take on life at the bottom of the pit, and what it takes to begin the long walk to freedom: “When it’s raining it’s pouring. Be grateful when it works out and it feels easy because you know it is going to be difficult at times. When you get in a bad cycle it’s a gradual thing. Errors creep in almost imperceptibly and before you know it you are hooking it, the fairways start to appear a little smaller and confidence goes.
“And when you come back it takes a lot of time. It’s not like I ate a lot of carrots and did more push-ups in June and all of a sudden I’m playing better in July and August. That process starts nine months before when you start looking at things, making small changes.
“It’s not a quick fix. You are not getting things for free. Eventually you are getting enough pieces of the puzzle together. When you are down that is what you are looking for, hoping that this will be the week you find something in your swing or your putting, but really it is the long-term work that is going to pay off.”
That’s one way of expressing what happened next. To recap, Stenson sent out a flare in March, finishing second at the Shell Houston Open. Hello. He then finished fifth at the Players’ Championship in May, a result that went largely unnoticed with attention focused on Woods and Sergio Garcia trading handbags across Sawgrass.
It was only when he crossed the Atlantic, posting a third at the Scottish Open before chasing Phil Mickelson home at Muirfield in the space of seven days, that the krone began to drop. A fortnight later at the WGC-Bridgestone he finished second to Woods. One week after that he finished third in the final major of the season, the US PGA.
This was heading only one way: towards nirvana and a jackpot of $10m, which he claimed with two wins, at the Deutsche Bank and Tour Championships, in the PGA Tour season-ending FedEx Cup play-offs. Had enough? Neither had Stenson.
Back across the pond he came to win the European Tour finale, the DP World Championship in Dubai, and seal the Race to Dubai title.
“I’ve had the season of my life, a dream year really. The shot I hit down the line at the Houston Open to get into the Masters – I finished second in the end there – that was the big turning point. That’s when it felt like I was hitting proper golf shots under pressure over the last couple of holes to have a chance to win a tournament on the PGA Tour. The confidence started to build. To be in contention as I was over the summer over so many weeks was something very special.
“We all know how hard it is to play well week in, week out. I don’t know if I’m ever going to come near a stretch like that again. Of course, I hope and will keep on trying, but this might be the one where I look back and it turns out to be the year of my career. It was once in a lifetime to win the double and the bonus of taking both championships on both sides of the Atlantic was amazing.”
The coin banked feeds into the other great narrative of Stenson’s life, the losses he took after placing his investments in the hands of crooked financier Allen Stanford. Wilder estimates claim the association wiped $8m off Stenson’s fortune in the post-2008 apocalypse. The return to credit was welcome but not, perhaps, the mixed messages his windfall sent, particularly back home in Sweden, where he heads this Christmas for his annual family reunion with wife, Emma, and children Karl and Lisa.
“The focus on money might have been a little too high. I don’t have a problem with there being a debate about money in sport, the very large sums we play for when we are playing well. But I don’t see why golf should be seen in a different light. Of course $10m is a huge amount of money. But it’s not the players who decide. It is market-driven. The sponsors would not put in the money if they did not get value. Football players make a lot of money, hockey players too. There are lots of sportspeople making huge money.
“There are others who put their heart and soul into sports where there is not the same money to be won, which makes the comparison tough, but I don’t see why golf should be treated differently to other professional sports and looked down on. I sometimes get that feeling it does. Maybe it’s starting to change. I just wish that people would look at the achievements that I did, the sports side of it not the money side.
“I didn’t start playing, thinking that in 22 years’ time I might be able to make a nice prize cheque. That’s not why I started playing golf and not why I keep on going. At this stage the most pleasure I take from this is winning. In the two play-offs [FedEx Cup final series] I beat the best players in the world at two tournaments and won the overall FedEx Cup. Winning those and making those achievements happen is more important to me than the prize money. I made some nice money over the years. I’m not saying I don’t want the money, it’s a very nice bonus, but if you are only playing for the money that is a dangerous place to go. I love to compete and play great golf and it’s a lovely feeling when it comes together.”
Stenson’s success has propelled him to the top of the Ryder Cup rankings. A third appearance, at Gleneagles, is an obvious date for his 2014 calendar. There are four others. “I finished second at the Open, third at the US PGA. I was up there challenging for the win, came close to winning and felt like I had more to give. That’s the exciting part for me. If I can play well at one of the big ones next year it will be interesting to see if I can pull it off at one of the majors.
“At the Open I had a lip out on the 10th and on 12 and 13 gave away easy bogeys. I played well the last five holes. You never know what might have been but Phil [Mickelson] was a deserving winner. He played great and sometimes you just have to accept that someone else is having a better week.
“Hopefully I can kick on next year. Being a European, the Open Championship, one of the tournaments I watched on television when I first started to play the game, would be the one I would most like to win but I’m not picky. I would be happy to put my name on any one of those trophies, or get a jacket.”
From bust to boom: how fortune turned
Henrik Stenson lost a reported $8m in the financial collapse of 2008, having invested his money with jailed financier Allen Stanford. “No one would be happy losing a big part of your savings but that happened early in ’09 and then I won the Players,” he said. “It is a done chapter for me. I’ve moved on. Luckily, I’m in a sport where I can make a lot of money if I’m playing well and make up for things quickly in that sense. Other people are not as fortunate. That is the sad part when those kinds of thing happen.”
Stenson’s golden year
The Open, Muirfield (July) Second, three shots behind Phil Mickelson.
Bridgestone Invitational, Akron (August) Second again, tied with Keegan Bradley behind Tiger Woods.
PGA Championship, Oak Hill (August) Claims third the following week.
Deutsche Bank Championship, Norton (September) First win of the year as he becomes first European winner of FedEx Cup.
DP World Tour Championship, Dubai (November) Wins climax of the European Tour (right) by six shots, finishing with an eagle.