STEN­SON’S RE­TURN

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.

Golf Australia - - NEWS - WORDS BREN­DAN JAMES PHO­TOG­RA­PHY GETTY IMAGES

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 a’ected 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 su’ered 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 diŒer­ent 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 coŒee 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.

34

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.

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