THE INTERVIEW: HENRIK STENSON
John Huggan chats with the big-hitting Swede about Royal Troon, the fallout from his stellar 2016 and his plans for this year.
Winning the 2016 Open Championship in the way you did was obviously extra special, but how did you react to it all in the aftermath of such a high?
2016 was the best year of my career, but the 12 months after Troon were also the busiest of my career. And yes, it was hard at times to focus on what was ahead rather than what had been. Until I actually returned the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale, I felt like I was constantly living in the past. Everywhere I went I was the Open Champion, which is great.
But the spectacular way in which I won definitely made it even more interesting to people. Everyone wanted a picture and everyone wanted to talk about it. So it was hard to live in the moment and focus on what I needed to do going forward. Yes, you had written the first paragraph of your obituary. (laughs) That’s one way of looking at it. But I know what you mean. The bottom line is that I was busier than I had ever been o the course. The demands on my time were amazing.
I learned a bit of what that was like after winning the Fed-Ex Cup and the Race to Dubai in 2013. But this was a whole new level of interest. I was shattered by the early part of 2017, just as I had been at the same point in 2014.
I actually still read 2013 as the best season of my life in terms of how I played for that hole year. Yes, I won the BMW International and the Open in 2016 – and the silver medal at the Olympics – but I was better during 2013 as a whole. I played almost at the peak of my game for just about half the season. In 2016 I had some really high highs, but not quite the same consistently high level overall. Still, I had my best week at the best event. So I can’t complain. Timing is everything.
Is it true to say that your mind was sometimes elsewhere during the first part of 2017?
I was still riding the wave when I played well in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. But after that I had some time o. I was away from the game for a month while we moved house. It was then that everything started to catch up with me. I didn’t have much energy left by the time I went to the Masters.
The mental side of this game is so important and I was running on empty. I was just tired and couldn’t make things happen. I was only really in contention in Dubai and at Wentworth in May. Otherwise, I was just strolling along. Winning the Wyndham Championship was so important for me. It’s not the biggest event on the PGA Tour but I was still pushed to the very limit.
Yeah, when you win anywhere you have to beat guys who are playing well.
Exactly. On any Tour you have to play really well to win. You can’t win with just ‘good.’ You have to do a bit better than that.
Is any of what you’ve just said that unexpected? Is it not what you would expect after such a high?
A bit I guess. When you have maybe the best year of your career it is always going to be a challenge to repeat. Expectations rise. People expect you to play at the highest level all the time. That is impossible. But someone told me recently that I am the only player who has been in the top-10 on the world ranking for all of the last four years. I’m proud of that.
At the Bridgestone tournament earlier this year I asked my caddie, Gareth (Lord), to check how many players had scored more world ranking points than me in 2017. He came back and said it was 30. And since then I won the Wyndham and was second at the WGC HSBC in China. So I would guess I am maybe 20th now. That’s not bad in a year when I haven’t played nearly as well as I can.
Having said that, I always measure myself against my best game. When I’m not there it does feel like I am coming up a bit short. And when I had that performance at Troon the bar was raised even higher.
That’s the best you have ever played in a single event?
Oh yes. I’d have to say so. Maybe it is a bit easier when you win your first major relatively late in your career. I don’t want to mention too many
UNTIL I ACTUALLY RETURNED THE CLARET JUG AT ROYAL BIRKDALE, I FELT LIKE I WAS CONSTANTLY LIVING IN THE PAST – HENRIK STENSON
names, but there have been many guys who have struggled a lot after winning one. I’m not sure if Trevor Immelman ever won again after his Masters victory for example (once, on the 2013 Web.com Tour). And others have disappeared too for whatever reason. So it was nice for me to win again after Troon.
I look back and remember how frustrating 2015 was for me. I was second maybe half a dozen times. I was playing tennis with my son on the driveway one day when I looked up at the Fed-Ex Cup in my oce window. I thought to myself there should have been another one in the window next to it. But you never know what it is in the future. Instead, I got a Claret Jug. I’d rather have that than two FedEx Cups (laughs). So what is motivating you going forward? Just winning really. That never gets old. I love being in that position. But is it enough just to win a tour event? Yes. It’s enough being in the mix. But I know what you are saying. I have maybe five years left at the highest level to win more majors. That focuses my attention. How does the Ryder Cup fit into all that? Do you even think about making the next team? I do. Of course. I’d love to be on the team again. I’ve had such a great time at every Ryder Cup I’ve played in. It is such a great honour. So yes, I want to get on at least two more teams before we are done. It’s certainly on my mind. Is there a captaincy in your future? Possibly. I don’t know. These days it seems like it is a full-time job for at least a year. I’d have to be prepared to make that sacrifice. Put it this way. I don’t think I would turn it down if it was oered, but it would have to be at the right time. What are the best and worst aspects of the Ryder Cup? I’m not sure there are any bad aspects. I’ve always taken the view that I would rather be on the losing team than not be there at all. It is such a pressurised event. It really gets the adrenaline going. Whether it is home or away, although they are so dierent.
Playing in front of those crowds and for your country and teammates is such a great experience. So dierent. Being part of it all is definitely worth fighting for. How do you feel about the crowds? I walked around at Hazeltine and it wasn’t a lot of fun. Yes. We do seem to have lost our way a bit there. There is a good case to be made of telling the crowd what is expected of them. And if anyone is not prepared to behave in that way they should be asked to leave. It’s hard to believe that some of those people are actually golfers. Yes. There is a dierent crowd at the Ryder Cup. It feels like there are a lot of people there who have not been to many golf events. The guy behind the plate in baseball is showing up. And that is not the way we operate in golf.
In action sports the ball is moving and everyone reacts to the moment. The players don’t have time to listen to stu. But in golf there’s that time. It’s easy to be distracted by what you hear.
I fully expect the American crowd to support their players. But supporting your own is not the same as trying to distract the other team. Some of the chants were really vile at Hazeltine. That’s true. I feel like I have a pretty wide fan base everywhere in the world. So they weren’t particularly nasty to me. But I know some of my teammates – Rory, Sergio, Danny Willett and Lee Westwood – were subjected to some pretty hostile stu. They had a rough ride. So I wouldn’t be against calming that down a bit in the future. Maybe it needs the other spectators to start identifying the culprits. Does it surprise you that the Americans dominate the Presidents Cup, in contrast to
the Ryder Cup? I know Nick Price and the International Team would like a change to the format and
the number of matches. I can’t for the life of me think why there would be resistance to that. It is supposed to be a real match, one you ideally want to be tight. And to make that happen the International side needs some help. If you look at the rankings of their side, they have to go a long way down to get 12 players. So the bottom end has been relatively weak. They are not bad players, of course. But at the end of the day there is a reason why someone is ranked 75th and someone is ranked 15th. Over a period of time that dierence shows up. So what advice would you give the matches? They need to figure out how to make them close. The last one was tough. It was almost over before the singles. That’s no good. Even at Hazeltine – when we had a decent sized hill to climb – winning was still possible going into the last day.
I don’t have much in the way of advice other than changing the format so that there is more room for the captains to rest players. It was a shame that the Internationals did not win in Korea back in 2015. That would have been great for the event. How do you look back on your experience at the Olympics? It was wonderful. I grew up watching both the summer and winter games. And it was such an honour to represent Sweden. Has there been much evidence since Rio of golf growing in the way the organisers hoped? Maybe not. But it is early. Golf needs more than one event to make a big dierence. But 10 times more people in Sweden watched me go head-to- head with Justin Rose in Rio than watched me win the Open. That has to be good.
The game was showcased and suddenly I was an Olympian rather than just a golfer. And while it was great to win a medal, other guys like Rickie Fowler had a great time too. Was it a hard loss? Not at the time. We both played really well. But it hurt a bit afterwards to be so close to the gold medal. I can’t lie. Did you watch any of the other sports? I did. Some handball. I stayed a couple of nights in the village. You roughed it? A spoiled, pampered Tour pro roughed it in the village? Yes (laughs). I did. I went to the opening ceremony and wanted that experience too. But when it was time to play I wanted my own space. It was a bit cramped in the village (laughs). When did you last visit Australia? I haven’t been back since the 2005 Heineken event at Royal Melbourne, which is a shame. I love the courses there. I’m a big Sandbelt fan. I’d love to go back at some point.
But finding time in the schedule is dicult. I play in the Middle East in January. Then I’m in the US pretty much through the US Open. Then it is Europe. Then back to the US again.
There are just too many tournaments. I’m going to be 42 in April and I have my little niggling injuries. So I’m not looking to add events to my schedule. If anything, I’d like to play less, not more. Australia is a lovely place but it is also far away.
WINNING THE WYNDHAM CHAMPIONSHIP WAS SO IMPORTANT FOR ME ... I WAS PUSHED TO THE VERY LIMIT – HENRIK STENSON
Stenson defeated Phil Mickelson by three shots, who finished 11 clear of third place. Stenson won the Open in 2016 after firing one of the greatest final rounds in history.
Stenson closed with a sixunder 64 to win the Wyndham Championship last August.
Stenson defeated Ollie Schniederjans by a shot to win his first event since Troon.