We marvelled at his ball-striking en route to winning the Open Championship in record style at Royal Troon in 2016. Henrik Stenson is battling a niggling injury and a dip in form but he still has eyes on keeping the Claret Jug for another year.
Henrik Stenson is battling a niggling injury and a dip in form but he still has eyes on keeping the Claret Jug for another year, writes Golf Australia Editor, Brendan James.
For a shade under four and a half hours on a Scottish summer’s afternoon on July 17 last year, Henrik Stenson played the best golf of his life. From his cracking opening tee shot to the 20-foot birdie putt he drained on Royal Troon’s 18th hole, the Swede crafted a golfing masterpiece that will long be regarded as one of the finest major championship rounds ever played.
When his ball found the bottom of the cup for the last time that day, the records tumbled with it. His 10th birdie of the round gave him an eight under 63 to match Johnny Miller for the lowest closing round by a major champion. Stenson’s 20-under total of 264 was the lowest 72-hole score ever in a major. He also tied Jason Day’s record for lowest under par, which was set at the 2015 US PGA Championship.
His first major win was also a first for any male golfer from Sweden.
Giving greater weight to the quality of Stenson’s play is the fact he needed to produce one of the best final rounds ever to beat the man playing alongside him.
Phil Mickelson, who started the championship with a 63 of his own, was aiming to become the oldest winner since Old Tom Morris in 1867. He threw everything but the kitchen sink at Stenson in an amazing duel of brilliant shot-making and low scoring. In the end, his bogey-free 65 was good enough only for second place – his 11th runner-up finish in a major – three strokes behind the then 40-year-old Stenson.
“A 65 in the final round of a major is usually good enough to win,” said Mickelson, who would not have taken any comfort in the fact his closing score would have been good enough to win all but two Opens in the previous 100 years.
At the trophy presentation, Stenson whispered to Mickelson, “Thank you very much for a great fight.”
After getting his hands on the silver Claret Jug for the first time and moments before facing the waiting media, Stenson stood chatting with family and friends hugging the coveted trophy like a young child would their security blanket or teddy bear. He undoubtedly felt this moment would never come, given his dramatic form slumps and some o-course battles during his career.
Only seven years earlier, Stenson was one of several victims of fraudster Allen Stanford, who is now serving a life sentence for conning investors out of more than US$7 billion. Stenson lost $6 million in the con and later admitted he felt embarrassed and ashamed he had been swindled. It aected his confidence and his game. He went winless for two years and by the end of 2011 his world ranking had plummeted to No.207 from a spot cemented in the top-10 throughout 2008-09. As he had done from a dramatic form slump in the early 2000s when he suered from the driver yips, Stenson bounced back to become mentally stronger and a believer in his own ability.
“If I didn’t believe, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Stenson smiled as he touched the Claret Jug sitting in front of him.
“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. It makes it more special to beat a competitor like Phil. He’s been one of the best to play the game, and certainly in the last 20 years. So to come out on top after such a fight with him over these four days, it makes it even more special.
“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.” And there is not a quitting bone in his body. In 2001, and just seven weeks after winning on the European Tour, Stenson all but abandoned using a driver.
“When your caddie is rattling in the bag to see if he’s got any balls left when you’re standing over a drive, you know you’ve got a problem,” Stenson said. “At the tournament we played at the K Club (near Dublin), I had no idea where my drives were going to go. One went 400 yards left and another went 400 yards right. I was shaking and my hands felt like jelly. It became a mental problem.”
Today, 12 months on from his historic Open victory, Stenson is in familiar territory – he’s ranked No.7 in the world (having reached No.3 in February) and there are questions over his form as he prepares to defend his title at Royal Birkdale.
“I just keep on working on my game. I haven’t been that happy with my long game in particular over the past couple of months, or even longer than that,” Stenson said. “It’s a work-in-progress, but overall I don’t think we’re in a bad spot.
“I think we’re getting closer. I wouldn’t say we’re 100 percent but we’re heading in the right direction. I’m hitting more good shots, and the bad ones are hopefully a little closer to where they need to be, as well.
“I had a great year last year and always there’s a bit of a risk to run out of steam at some point. I kind of did that in ‘14 after the great year I had in ‘13. In the spring, it was hard to get going.
“I have put a fair amount of work in. Well, you can always throw a couple of dierent thoughts on why things don’t work out the way you want to, but all in all, its ups and downs, life in general, golf certainly.
“Moving houses, long season, not much rest in between seasons, and kind of trying to carry on, eventually I think you tend to run out of steam a little bit.
“I mean, I can continue with certain thoughts on why I haven’t played my best in the past couple of months, but I just feel like it’s on the edge now heading into the summer months where it’s a lot of golf and a busy time, and I’ll just try to put some extra work in and try to get going again.”
A torn meniscus in his right knee has also been hampering Stenson.
“The knee is not 100 percent, but it’s not giving me too much grief in general,” he said. “I just try and keep it strong and stable, and most of the time it doesn’t give me much problem. More so if I’m walking very undulated and sidehill kind of courses, then it tends to make itself recognised a little bit more.
“But you know, at this point, I hope I can just manage it with those measures, and if I need to have a surgery at some point in the future, we’ll just have to deal with that at that time.”
Stenson will arrive at Royal Birkdale with the aim of joining Padraig Harrington (2007-08), Tiger Woods (2005-06), Tom Watson (1982-83), Lee Trevino (1971-72), Arnold Palmer (1961-62), Peter Thomson (1954-55-56) and Bobby Locke (1949-50) as the only players since World War II to win the Open back-to-back.
He would like nothing more than to keep the Claret Jug for another 12 months. He has taken the silverware around the world and, if he is successful at Royal Birkdale, he’s got more adventures planned for the game’s most recognisable trophy.
“Well, it’s a pretty nice feeling to see the Jug on your coee table every day,” he smiled. “I don’t know if it needs to be much more adventurous than that.
“But it’s been on a jet-ski journey. I haven’t taken it sky diving yet. I’ll probably, if I defend at Birkdale, I might take it sky diving. That could be a good bet, right?”
And he’s looking forward to getting back to Birkdale, where he finished tied third behind Padraig Harrington in 2008.
“I played well there in 2008,” he said. “It’s one of my favourite Open venues.
“I think it’s a little bit less kind of down to chance if you’re hitting a tee shot down the fairway for it to stay on the fairway. It’s pretty straightforward links in that sense.
“I’ll hope I can give it a good shot to try and hang on to it. I’m sure it’s going to be a sad moment when we have to give the trophy back otherwise.”
Stenson has the firepower to attack Royal Birkdale but the landing zones are much narrower than most of the holes at Royal Troon. It’s hard to imagine that he can reproduce the ball-striking form he showed last year, but if he can straighten out his long game before teeing up on the Southport links on July 20 he might be the man to beat again.
I’LL HOPE I CAN GIVE IT A GOOD SHOT TO TRY AND HANG ON TO IT. I’M SURE IT’S GOING TO BE A SAD MOMENT WHEN WE HAVE TO GIVE THE TROPHY BACK OTHERWISE.
Stenson examines the Claret Jug during a quiet moment in the Royal Troon locker room.
Stenson has Birkdale experience, finishing T3 at the 2008 Open Championship.