Henrik Stenson learned to be as forbidding inside the ropes as he is goofy outside them

Monday March 16th, 2009
After early success Stenson lost his confidence and struggled for years to regain his form.
Brian Smith

Henrik stenson bombs it like Tiger Woods and closes out tournaments like Raymond Floyd, but his on-course demeanor calls to mind an even more iconic figure. With his stoic visage, dark sunglasses and Nordic accent, "he's like the Terminator," says Luke Donald. Last year Stenson, a 30-year-old native of Goteborg, Sweden, made his debut at the Masters as a talented tease who wowed with his skills but had yet to develop a Schwarzenegger-like ability to blow away anybody and anything in his path. To very little fanfare Stenson shot a jittery 74-77 to miss the cut. Since then he has morphed into a ruthless winning machine. In the last 12 months Stenson has vanquished Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington with an eagle in sudden death at the BMW International Open, holed the clinching putt at the Ryder Cup, mowed down Woods and Ernie Els in a final-round shootout in Dubai, stormed to victory at the Accenture Match Play Championship and surged to No. 5 in the World Ranking. Memo to Augusta National: He'll be back.

In fact, Stenson arrives at this Masters on the short list of favorites, even though in seven previous major championships as a pro he has finished better than 26th only once. Mindful of both his inexperience at the majors and the cresting expectations, Stenson says, "I'd be happy to have a top 10. I think that would be a pretty good tournament for me."

The words hang in the air like a bad idea, and Stenson seems to feel the disappointment in his audience. "Um, that doesn't sound very tough, does it?" he says. "Maybe I should say I'm going to crush them by 15 shots, break Tiger's record. How's that? Better?"

That's the thing about Stenson-as intimidating as he looks on the course, he's not very scary away from it. He says, "I'm useless at smiling," but he can light up a room with his boyish grin. He has a goofy sense of humor and a weakness for low-brow comedies; he can quote Talladega Nights like a holy text, and in the course of one recent conversation he dropped nuggets from Dumb and Dumber and Life of Brian. Turns out he's also a merry prankster, going as far back as his teen years on the Swedish national team, when he was busted for hurling water balloons from a hotel balcony.

Stenson is recently married-to Emma Lofgren, a fellow Swede and former member of the golf team at South Carolina-and a soon-to-be father, but it doesn't appear as if he's grown up too much. At last year's China Open in Beijing he was delighted to find, at an outdoor market, a device that looked like a pen but zapped its users with a surprisingly strong electrical current. As he gleefully recalls, "I went around for days saying, 'Hey, can I get your e-mail address?' Then I'd hand people the pen and they'd, like, freak out."

This duality-cold-blooded killer between the ropes, frat boy the rest of the time-has been forged during a short, eventful career that has had dizzying successes and glaring failures. In 2000, a year into his pro career, Stenson tore up the Challenge tour, the European developmental circuit, winning three times. In 2001, as a rookie on the European tour, he won in his 11th start. A star was born, or so it seemed.

Within a few months of that victory, he was in an all-consuming slump. Stenson is a self-described "big-time perfectionist"-early in his career he traveled with his own bread and muesli to ensure that his breakfasts were just so-and he tried to build on his maiden triumph by tinkering with his mechanics. That led to swing problems that begot a crisis of confidence. He hit bottom during the 2001 European Open, at the K Club, where he needed three tee shots on his first hole before he could put one in play. It got worse from there, and Stenson walked in after nine holes. "For a long while he couldn't hit the fairway; he couldn't hit the golf course; he couldn't hit the planet," says Torsten Hansson, a sports psychologist who has been working with Stenson since 1995, when both were affiliated with the Swedish national team.

With help from veteran swing coach Peter Cowen, Stenson spent the next three years putting his game back together, but, he says, "the problems were more mental than physical." To help Stenson dig out of this epic slump, Hansson put him through what he calls extensive mental-toughness training. The idea was to expose Stenson to situations in which he felt uncomfortable and force him to handle them. Among the drills was walking on a balance beam blindfolded. Stenson also hit buckets of balls wearing a blindfold to learn to trust himself again. All the work paid off with his second career victory, at the European tour's The Heritage in '04. He's been on a roll ever since, finishing eighth on the European money list in '05 and then beginning his ascent as a world-class player last spring.

According to Hansson, "We are now seeing a catch-up effect from all the hard work he did when he was stuck in the mud. That was a dreadful time, but he developed a toughness to handle all that tension and frustration. Now his mind is unbreakable."

That strength was obvious at the Match Play during a quarterfinal tussle with Nick O'Hern, who was still flying from having beaten Woods the day before. After Stenson won the 17th hole to square the match, his errant drive on 18 cozied up to a cactus. No sweat. He took a penalty drop onto the desert hardpan and then stuffed his approach to two feet for an improbable par. It was the shot of the tournament, and it proved decisive when a rattled O'Hern made bogey. Stenson had displayed the same killer instinct a month earlier on the 72nd hole at the Dubai Desert Classic, when he got up and down for the winning birdie, sinking a never-in-doubt seven-footer to beat his playing partner, Els, by a stroke and Woods by two. Even more than the Match Play, at which he beat U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy in the final, Dubai stamped Stenson as a big-time player. Those around him have detected a different swagger ever since.

"It's funny with golfers-everybody else might know how good somebody is, but until you believe it yourself it doesn't really matter," says Chris DiMarco, a buddy of Stenson's. "It was a huge boost for Henrik to birdie that last hole in Dubai with Tiger and Ernie breathing down his neck. Now he realizes how good he is."

As he heads into Augusta, one of Stenson's biggest challenges is managing expectations-his and everyone else's-which have only been heightened by his strong play at last week's CA Championship, in which he finished 19th. He arrived at last year's Masters as a trendy dark horse pick, thanks to a tie for third two weeks earlier at the Players Championship. Stenson was actually fighting his swing at the Players, but prospered thanks to what he calls the best week of his career on the greens. Still groping to find his swing during the first round of the Masters, he was in the process of grinding out a decent score until he made a sloppy bogey at the 17th hole. No course frays the nerves quite like Augusta National, and with one bad chip Stenson lost his cool. "I'm working on it, but I can still run very hot," he says. "There have been a few shafts gone to pieces in my career." He promptly double-bogeyed 18.

Though he missed the cut by three strokes, Stenson did not consider his first Masters a total bust. He went to school during the first two rounds, absorbing the course management of playing partner Vijay Singh, who won a green jacket in 2000. "I learned so much that I can apply this year," Stenson says. His education in the majors continued at the PGA Championship. With two rounds of 68, Stenson was tied for the lead through Friday, but on the weekend a cold putter and some overly aggressive play doomed him to a 14th-place finish.

During his third-round 73, Stenson was paired with pizzazz-free Billy Andrade a couple of groups behind Woods, the eventual champion. "Having a sniff of the lead at a big tournament, that's what it's all about," says Stenson. "I thrive on the atmosphere and the pressure. Saturday at the PGA, it was a weird feeling. Hardly anyone was watching Billy and me, and to be honest it was a bit of a letdown. That was a little inexperience there, letting it affect me."

Enter Fanny Sunesson. "She helps me focus," says Stenson, who sought out the veteran caddie late last year. She also helps him relax, as their shared Swedish sensibilities have led to plenty of inane chitchat on the course. "We had a good laugh at the Match Play," Stenson says. "The water bottles all said zero calories. I haven't had much high-calorie water, have you? Every time there would be a tense moment Fanny and I would be like, 'Hey, you want some zero-calorie water?'" It's not David Sedaris, but it worked.

That Sunesson caddied for Nick Faldo for two of his three Masters wins will give Stenson an important edge at Augusta National. Already she has been putting him through some of Faldo's old pre-Masters preparations, specifically practicing chipping to very precise distances. Faldo now represents a bygone era of European dominance at the majors. No Euro has won any major since Scotland's Paul Lawrie achieved his flukish victory at the '99 British Open. Stenson knows what it would mean to end the drought. He was asked a few weeks ago if, in light of his recent success, he will be besieged the next time he walks around Stockholm. "I don't think I'm going to have to walk," he said. "They will probably carry me around, a little crown on my head."

As momentous as it would be for Stenson to break through at the Masters, a victory there would also be personal. At one of their first sessions together, Hansson asked Stenson to identify his goals. At the top of the list was winning a Masters. Says Hansson, "In 2001, '02, when he was at his lowest, we would talk about his boyhood dreams. The idea of someday winning the Masters, he held on to that very tight. He had to. Where else could he get the energy to continue?"

Soldier on Stenson did. And if he does lay waste to his adversaries at Augusta, he promises he'll remove those foreboding sunglasses and finally show the world his smile.

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