UNLIKE his luggage, which arrived so late that he had to play his first two practice rounds in shorts, Henrik Stenson seems to be heading in the right direction. He has twice finished in the top three at the Open Championship. Last year, he was runner-up to Phil Mickelson at Muirfield. “Now you’re going to figure out what I really want,” he smiled when the sequence was put to him yesterday.
Many are backing Stenson to win his first major at Royal Liverpool this week. He is the world No 2, a consequence mainly of his spectacular finish to 2013, when he won both the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai. He has finished in the top seven of his last five events.
If anyone is due a place on the growing list of first-time major winners, it is the 38-year-old Swede.
Stenson, who will tee it up with Tiger Woods this morning, would like nothing better. In 1989, the year after he took up golf, he was inspired by television pictures of Mark Calcavecchia winning The Open at Royal Troon, as well as Europe retaining the Ryder Cup.
He went on to play twice against the USA, but the major has eluded him.
He is knocking on the door, though. Last year, the best of his life, earned him eye-watering amounts of prize money that made up for losses sustained in the Stanford financial scandal. Season-ending bonuses on each side of the Atlantic combined with prize money to take his winnings for the 12-month period to around $20 million. “Do you need a loan?” he asked when he was reminded of the details here.
The point is that, despite the comfort zone into which he could easily slip, Stenson still yearns for the success that money can’t buy. “I grew up watching this championship,” he said. “It was a boyhood dream to play in the Ryder Cup. The other one was to win the Open Championship. So just because I’ve had some great success, don’t think that the dream has gone away. It’s the last thing on my CV to make it complete so I will try my hardest to make it happen. Motivation is always a factor. You’ve got to have that drive if you want to make those things happen. And I feel like I still have that.”
Stenson has had bad times as well as good. Apart from the financial hit, there was a health scare, as well as at least two alarming slumps, the most recent of which left him 230th in the world at the start of 2012. “I’ve had probably some bigger downs and potentially some bigger ups than a lot of players,” he said. “But nothing is just a straight line. And if it is, I don’t think we’re in the right place. There might be a coffin around us then.”
His current form isn’t quite so exhilarating as it was at the end of last year. A remarkable six-month run, which he jokingly attributed to eating double-portions of carrots in June, looked set to go on forever until Christmas intervened. “I was running on fumes when I saw Santa Claus. I was very tired.”
He still is. Stenson says that last week was his first opportunity of the year to take a break, which is why he opted out of the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open. Instead, he arrived at Royal Liverpool on Friday, since when he has enjoyed a leisurely preparation, soaking up the course’s every nuance at his own pace.
He says that, with relatively flat greens, there will be birdie opportunities, provided balls are kept out of the rough and the fairway bunkers. As ever, patience will be crucial on a course that has the potential to demoralise. “Chasing has never been the formula for success here,” said Stenson.
“It’s something to be mindful of when you start the tournament. It’s going to be a long four days.” At 9.04 this morning, he will set off in the company of Woods and Angel Cabrera, which should make for a lively spectacle. When one journalist suggested to the Swede that he, five places above Woods in the world pecking order, would strike fear into the American, he replied with the kind of dry humour that has become his trademark. “I think it would have been a lot of sleepless nights for him of late. When did the draw come out? He looked tired, didn’t he?”
Not that Stenson will be at all fazed by the return of a player who would be the star attraction in any three-ball. “I’ve had some good success playing against him and managed to beat him a couple of times. So I’ll try and do the same tomorrow. He’s just one of the guys I need to beat if I want to do well this week, but it’s a good start if you know you can beat him.”
As it happens, the two get along rather well. Woods said the other day that he liked Stenson’s humour, which is just as well, for he will need some light relief this morning. ESPN have dedicated an entire channel to cover every shot of his return.
There no such demand for Stenson, but if he gets himself into contention on Sunday night, more than a few will be watching and willing him on.