HENRIK Stenson’s wicked sense of humour belies the common perception of the Swedes as a rather joyless bunch – and it’s a trait which must have helped him through a period in his life which can have been no laughing matter.
Stenson lost a substantial amount of his savings after being among those defrauded for almost $5 billion by Texan tycoon Allen Stanford.
As Stanford serves a 110-year jail sentence in the United States, Stenson has been trying to get his career back on track. He ended a three-and-a-half year title drought by winning the South African Open towards the end of last year. He’s back up to 32nd in the world. He’s back playing in majors again instead of sitting at home watching them on TV.
With that in mind, it was a welcome sight yesterday as Stenson charged up the leaderboard en route to an eight-under-par 64 – the joint best of the day – in the second round of the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
Sitting close to the lead at the halfway stage on the banks of the Moray Firth, he had ample reason to be in good fettle and didn’t disappoint with the wisecracks. This was no surprise to those who listened to him out in Abu Dhabi earlier this year – around the time Lance Armstrong ended years of denial by admitting he used performance-enhancing drugs during all seven of his Tour de France wins – as he answered questions about the likelihood of a drugs issue ever surfacing in the world of golf.
A weighty issue was quickly lightened as Stenson quipped that the only drug he could think of which might improve a golfer’s game would be Viagra – “as that would help you hit drives long and straight.”
A corny line, perhaps, but Stenson makes for enjoyable company, and yesterday he made light of a slump that had sent him plummeting from world No 4 just over four years ago to 230th around 18 months ago. “I was jolly all the way,” he said.
“It is time that a Swede challenged in a major again,” said the 37-year-old in turning an eye towards next week’s 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield. “We’ve been fairly close (Jesper Parnevik finished runner-up to Nick Price at Turnberry in 1994 then again to Justin Leonard at Troon three years later) and had some good results. But it’s not a question of if, only a question of when,” predicted Stenson.
“For me, there was some work to be done just to get back into the majors. You are never going to challenge from the couch, that’s for sure. It’s good to be back in there for a 63-hole marathon then a back nine sprint on the Sundays. If the chips fall your way, hopefully something can happen.”
If he can maintain his flawless play from yesterday, when he tucked himself just behind the leaders on ten-under, something might well happen here tomorrow night. “I’ve had two slumps in my career,” mused the two-times Ryder Cup player. “I had a big one after coming out and winning in 2001 – I went through basically two seasons when I was struggling.
“I came back and touched a high of fourth in the world rankings, then dropped down to 230 or something at the beginning of 2012. It’s been a tough journey to get back up to where I know I should be and could be. But, even though I’ve been low with my game at times, I can separate it and not take it out on the people around me. I leave my bogeys and bad play behind me.
“I hope my best years are ahead. I’ve been better coming back from a slump. It’s good to have to work hard to get back to this level. It was great to get the win in South Africa last year. I still believe that, when I get the game to where I know it can be, I can be up there challenging for big events.”
In a bid to find the right place on fast-running narrow fairways at Muirfield, Stenson will have a 2-iron in his bag for the first time in two years.
“I spent Sunday and Monday at Muirfield and, if you promise not to tell anybody else, I’ll tell you that you’re going to be needing a two iron around there,” he said, assuming a conspiratorial air. “It’s an 18-degree 2-iron that I tweaked down to 17 but we might need to hold it back a degree or so. It’s going to be very useful. If you can get something that goes 260 or 270 yards off the tee, that’s perfect for a lot of the par-4s next week. You just want to have something low and chasey out there. The rough is thick and, in crosswinds, I don’t like hitting a fairway wood.”
Stenson’s secret is already out, according to Martin Laird. The biggest-hitter in the opening round here, averaging tee shots of 335 yards, the Scot said he didn’t envisage his driver being used much next week, with a 3-iron that has been turned into a 2-iron being his likely choice of weapon off the tee.
“I hit that at the ninth today and it went 330 yards,” said Laird after signing for a 69 to sit within touching distance of the leaders on seven-under. “It’s a 3-iron that I have bent down to 17 degrees to have it go run as far as possible and it could be good next week. I’ve said to my caddie that if it’s firm and baked out next week then we’ll be going with it at every hole.”