fOR those of an Old World persuasion, it’s a sobering thought that this admittedly still young century has yet to witness a European being fitted for golf’s most coveted item of clothing. Not since Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal slipped into his second emerald-hued jacket in 1999 has a player from the starboard side of the transatlantic water hazard finished first in the Masters Tournament at Augusta National.
That wearisome statistic may change this week – the injury-induced absence of you-know-who won’t hurt – especially if the bookies are to be believed. Going into the 78th playing of America’s evergreen “rite of spring”, Ulsterman Rory McIlroy is favourite to win what would be his third major title.
But, as all savvy punters know only too well, the odds offered by your typical turf accountant owe more to punters’ flights of fancy than actual reality.
For one thing, McIlroy is not only no longer No.1 in the world (he is seventh). Golf’s Belfast boy isn’t even the highest-ranked European. That honour goes to Henrik Stenson, the current No.3. Only the incapacitated Tiger Woods and defending Masters champion Adam Scott currently gaze down upon the lanky Swede.
It has been quite a last 12 months for Stenson, who turned 38 yesterday. Exactly one year ago, he arrived in Texas for the Houston Open as the 53rd best golfer on the planet. As such, he needed a high finish to haul himself up three places and into the Masters. Now he is 50 places higher and the first man ever to hold the European Tour’s “Race to Dubai” title and the PGA Tour’s Fed-Ex Cup simultaneously. Should he win today in Houston, he will rise to No.1 in the world. If Sweden is to hail its first male major champion seven days hence, then Stenson, despite a shaky beginning to this season’s play, is surely the man to get it done.
“It has been well documented what a fabulous year I had in 2013 and it has been hard to draw breath since,” says the Gothenburg native by way of explanation for a 2014 that so far has seen him produce only one top-ten finish, a tie for fifth at Bay Hill two weeks ago. “I only had a three-week break between playing in Thailand in the middle of December and the start of the new season. So I finished late and started 2014 low on fuel. Having said that, my game feels pretty good right now.”
Such an assessment is one with which Stenson’s long-time swing coach, Pete Cowen, concurs.
“I’m not at all surprised he has had a little reaction to last year,” says the Yorkshireman. “How could he not, unless he wins two majors? One will do though. If he wins one, he’ll have done better than last year. I do expect him to play at his best at some stage soon. And, if that coincides with a major, he’ll win. No doubt about that. His best golf is as good as anyone’s right now.”
As part of his preparation for the upcoming Masters, Stenson and his caddie, Gareth Lord, spent last Monday and Tuesday touring Augusta National. Despite this being the Swede’s ninth successive visit to the hallowed grounds, he wanted to refresh his memory of a course that has always rewarded local knowledge.
In the 78-year history of golf’s most important tournament (the other three majors are championships) only three first-time players have emerged victorious. And two – Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen – won the opening instalments of the then more prosaically named “Augusta Invitational Tournament.” Since then, only Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 has finished first as a Masters rookie.
“I went to Augusta to get my ‘homework’ done,” says Stenson with a smile. “It is important to go to that course with a game plan in place. So an early visit is more about tactics than it is the actual hitting of shots.
“We all know pretty much where the pins are going to be. So I spent a lot of time putting to those spots. And there are certain greens – no matter where the pin is – I’m going to hit to basically the same place. The middle of most greens is rarely bad. You can putt from there to the corners a lot easier than you can get up-and-down when you are ‘short-sided,’ the hole cut close to the edge of the putting surface.
“I feel like I know what I’m going to try and do when I get there. The gameplan is in place. So it all comes down to how well I play and how well I execute the shots.”
While that assessment is undoubtedly true, perhaps no course plays with a golfer’s head more than what was originally an Alister Mackenzie design. It is no coincidence that the man who has won more green jackets – six – than any other, Jack Nicklaus, was not exactly lacking when it came to the sometimes-underrated strategic and cerebral aspects of tournament golf.
“Mentally, I was really good for a long time last year,” continues Stenson. “But, through being tired, my patience has been a little low so far this year. When the head is not fully charged, you can never perform at your best. That is such an important part of this game, especially at Augusta.
“You have to be fresh to do well in the Masters. You have to be patient. You have to be able to absorb the hits when they come. That’s true in any major, of course. You have to be able to follow the plan, even if you do start with three bogeys. The week is not over, a fact you realise more and more with experience. A bad start is just that. It isn’t the end. In any event, you have good runs and bad runs. And, at Augusta, it’s all about knowing that and hanging in there for four days.”
Still, while there are always more constants than variables year-to-year on the only major to stay put rather than travel, next week there will be some noticeable differences. Courtesy of the recent ice storm that knocked over the famous “Eisenhower Tree” on the left side of the penultimate fairway, the topography of American golf’s most iconic venue has been altered.
“Quite a few trees have been cleared out,” explains Stenson. “And a number of areas are looking a bit less dense. Behind the first green, for example. You can see some of the trees have taken a bit of a beating.”
That is something Stenson intends to mete out to the elite field that will gather on Thursday morning to follow the ceremonial drives off the first tee by Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer. The thought that not one of his fellow countrymen has ever won one of golf’s four most important titles is never far from his mind.
“While there is pressure on all Swedes to win a major, I put more pressure on myself as an individual to get it done,” he says. “To be honest, I won’t be that bothered if I’m not first, as long as I get at least one of my own. I can’t imagine there was any more pressure on Adam Scott last year because an Australian had never won there. I’m sure he would have been just as nervous if he had been trying to be the tenth Aussie to win. Besides, if you make something too important, it only gets in the way of what you need to do. So I’d rather be the first Stenson to win a major than the first Swede.”
As is obvious from such comments, Stenson is inherently a modest soul, one unlikely to be found yelling from any great height about his prowess on the links. He knows his place, a fact that became apparent during dinner at last year’s Swedish Sports Awards (where he picked up “Male Athlete of the Year” and the prestigious “Radiosportens Jerrningpris” for the top sporting achievement of the year as voted by the public).
Seated opposite a gifted compatriot who rose to international notoriety wearing the hoops of Celtic, Stenson made the remark of the evening: “Whatever I do in golf I will only ever be the number two Henrik in Scotland.”
Mister Larsson’s immediate response must go unrecorded. But it would be surprising if he did not express at least mock disagreement. A Swede in a green jacket would surely trump one in a green and white shirt.