Tour and News

Few players have fought back from more calamity more often than Henrik Stenson. So is he finally ready for a major breakthrough?

Photo: Getty Images

Henrik Stenson celebrates winning the 2013 Tour Championship at East Lake.

Henrik Stenson is one of golf's top practical jokers. But three years ago, the game pulled a cruel prank on him: Stenson's swing deserted him, and he plunged from fourth to 230th in the World Golf Ranking. He couldn't have won his club championship, let alone a Tour event. Stenson was reduced to practicing full shots with his eyes closed. It was the sort of death spiral from which some stars never escape. But somewhere along the way, the Swede reclaimed the controls. A win at the 2012 South African Open ended a 42-month victory drought and ignited a torrid run that was as impressive as Stenson's fall was swift. In 2013, Stenson claimed the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai, the first player ever to nab both titles in a season. Once best known to American fans as the man who had stripped to his skivvies on national TV, Stenson exposed himself as something else: a talent capable of Tiger-like dominance. Now 38 and recovering from what he calls "the hangover" of last year's success, Stenson hopes to gain the recognition that comes with capturing a major crown. With the PGA Championship approaching, he sat down with Golf Magazine in his Orlando home to reflect on his resurgence, his quirky sense of humor and the prospects of a former underwear model winning the Wanamaker Trophy.

Your countrywoman, Annika Sorenstam, has 10 majors. Coming into the PGA Championship, do you feel any special pressure to become the first Swedish man to win a biggie?

I would love for that to happen, but it's much more important to me to win a major than to be the first Swede to do so.

In 2011, no one was talking about you winning your first major -- you were in a terrible slump. How did you pull yourself out of that tailspin?

By the end of that year, I was fed up with playing poorly. I said, "Enough. I've got to do something about this." I just wasn't having it anymore. It helped that I'd been through a bad slump before. In fact, it was much worse than 2011.

How so?

From 2001 to 2003, things became pretty bad. I was hitting it sideways. At the 2001 European Open, I walked off the K Club after nine holes. I was playing with Sandy Lyle and Miguel Ángel Jiménez. We started on the 10th hole and I had to hit two provisional balls. We were looking for my ball on every other hole, and I shot something like 43 on the first nine. I said, "Guys, just focus on your games. This isn't doing me or you any good." I wished them good luck and walked off. Five years later, I was back at the K Club, playing on the winning Ryder Cup team.

It must be brutal to suddenly not be able to do what you once were able to do -- like if I woke up and suddenly had lost the ability to write a sentence.

Well, I haven't read this piece yet. [Laughs] Seriously, though, it's not like I won a tournament and then woke up the next day and couldn't play golf. Every rise and fall takes time. It was a more gradual spiral, a combination of mental and physical factors. No one develops the yips when they're making every 4-footer. It's when you miss them repeatedly. Similarly, if you hit one bad drive, you reload and go on. But if you hit another and another and another, then you start looking more at the hazards and the trees, and the fairway gets narrower. Then it becomes a mental battle, and the mental gets tangled with the physical. It becomes a big mess.

Many golfers never emerge from that kind of slump. What was the key for you?

A lot of hard work with my swing coach, Pete Cowen, and freeing up my mind with the help of my mental coach, Torsten Hansson.

What does mental-game coaching invole for you -- no electroshock therapy, we hope?

[Laughs] Nothing like that. And no lying on a couch watching metal balls clack back and forth. One thing I did was hit long shots with my eyes closed. It's sort of like the putting drill where you look at the hole when hitting. If your practice swing is fine but something changes when the ball's there, you're reacting differently when you look at the ball.

Did you have the driver yips, too?

In 2001, I was really struggling off the tee. I don't know if it falls under what's called driver yips, but it was a disturbance in the system. I was hitting it so wide that I couldn't hit into those places today if I tried to.

Did you ever think about walking away from competitive golf for good?

No. There were tough times, but golf is my passion. Giving up was never an option. And I had a lot of support. My wife, Emma, played at the University of South Carolina. She knows how difficult this game can be, and she supported me as I put in the hard work. I enjoy working on my game. When I started playing as a kid, I never thought, "Hey, I could make a living at this." I simply picked up a club and fell in love. I loved hitting the perfect shot, of envisioning what I wanted to do -- and doing it. I haven't lost that. I enjoy sticking a wedge to a foot as much now as I did when I was a kid.

You hit a lot of terrific shots last year after emerging from the second big slump of your career. Did you dig out of that hole the same way?

Yes, a lot of hard work. I'd made the journey before and knew I could again.

Was there any one moment when you thought, 'Yes! I'm back!'?

At the [2013] Shell Houston Open, I birdied four of the last five holes to finish second. Hitting good shots under pressure when I needed them most was a big confidence boost for me.

Late last year, it looked like you might never miss a shot again. Can you help us mere mortals understand what it feels like to be in that kind of zone?

Well, Torsten, my mental-game coach, has a theory that if you feel like you haven't played as well as you could for a long period of time, you almost want to get revenge. Once I got going, I didn't want to stop -- I was sort of like the Energizer Bunny.

You won two Tour titles last September, including the Tour Championship at East Lake, and you became the first European to win the FedEx Cup. What was the highlight?

I remember I went out with Tiger on the first day at East Lake. He's leading the FedEx Cup and I'm second, and I played such a great front nine. I shot 6-under and beat him by nine. It wasn't his best day, of course, but it's not often you play with Tiger and he winds up being the sideshow. The stars were aligned.

Granted, Tiger is not as dominant as he was. What's your take on his decline?

Injuries and numerous operations. When you're injured, no one will play their best, never mind the incredible level Tiger was at when he was shattering all those records. Also, everyone else has caught up. There are more guys out there who can win.

Is Tiger the best player ever?

I say yes. I never saw Jack in his prime, but to me it's not just 18 versus 14 majors. Tiger has done it in a tougher era, and some of the shots he's pulled off are so spectacular. Did Jack make a 15-footer on Torrey Pines to get into a playoff and then limp around on one leg to win it? I wasn't around to watch [Jack], but Tiger has just had that little extra bit.

Let's talk about your life off the course. You have a rep as a practical joker.

I've always had a sick sense of humor. I'm a Dumb and Dumber kind of guy. Growing up in Sweden, my friends and I were always pulling pranks. One time our neighbor bought a TV that used the same remote control as ours, so we'd stand outside his house and change the channels when he was watching something. The guy would be yelling at his TV, so frustrated that he was ready to throw it out the window. It was hilarious.

And you've continued to prank fellow Tour pros. Got any all-time favorites?

Once I was in Switzerland, staying in a hotel that had these V-shaped balconies set close together, so it was easy to get from one balcony to the other. Carl Pettersson and Olle Karlsson were staying in the next room. I could hear them talking. I thought, "I can give them a good scare." I put on a hoodie, pulled it tight over my head and crawled over to their balcony. The window was open, and I ripped open the blinds, burst into their room and yelled, "Give me the f---in' money!" They practically jumped out of bed. One of them was reaching for the nightstand lamp to throw at me.

Here's something not so funny: In 2009, you learned you were a victim of Allen Stanford's Ponzi scheme. There were reports that you were taken for millions of dollars. Have you ever calculated your total losses from that?

I haven't. There are still people trying to sort through that entire mess. I honestly don't even know exactly what happened. Was it a Ponzi scheme? When I found out, I considered it sort of a write-off. If some of that money comes back to me, great. It was a substantial amount, but I'm luckier than most. It wasn't ever something that was going to ruin me. I had a few eggs in that basket but not all of them. I lost money, but nothing that impacted my day-to-day life.

Still, it must have been upsetting. Do you think it contributed to your slump?

No. I was angry, but I realized quickly that there was no point to that. It wasn't going to make me any happier to dwell on it, and it wasn't going to get me my money back. We take chances every day on the course: Lay up or go for it? In this case, I put money into a bank and thought it would be safe. That's what annoyed me -- not that I lost money, but that someone gambled with my money without my knowing.

The big paychecks kept coming last year, but not everything went your way. You unleashed some fury on your locker at the BMW Championship. Can we assume that was a rare outburst?

There's a fire burning in this calm Swede. I've got a temper. That day, I was in the locker room and had my carry-on with a cardboard box on top. I tried to kick the box, but I kicked through it and hit the shoe shelf in the locker with my shin, which didn't give way. That really hurt. So then I damaged that locker and the shelf. I had swelling half the size of a tennis ball, and I still have scar tissue. I paid for the damage and got told off. But at the Honda this year, I was presented with the pieces of that shattered locker, and I signed, "This was the best wood I hit all year." I'm not proud of what I did -- banging up a locker is not exactly something you do at a First Tee clinic. But this game can get the better of you. It happened. I owned up to it.

Do you regret stripping down to your underwear to hit a recovery shot from the water at the 2009 WGC-Cadillac Championship?

No, not at all. I'd hit one into the water and had started to take off my pants so that they wouldn't get messed up. I just figured, well, okay, I might as well keep going. I saved a stroke, so it was worth it. It got me a lot more attention than anything else in my career. I was still getting whistles for months. I still get asked to sign copies of the photo. I'm fine with that, but when it's older men asking, I get suspicious. [Laughs]

Your profile in the USA is bigger than ever. You've even got your own radio show, on SiriusXM.

Yeah, they say I've got the face for it. I'd love to have Bjorn Borg as a guest—he was a giant in Sweden when I was growing up.

Has Annika ever given you advice?

Just once. She said that when she was at her peak, she didn't give herself enough time to be happy. She told me to enjoy my achievements. And I've done that. The beginning of this year, I had a bit of a hangover from 2013. There were so many demands on my time, but I'm starting to play well. I traveled 31 weeks last year. It's hard playing both tours.

With Tiger's recent injury, the No. 1 ranking is up for grabs and within your reach. How important is that to you?

It would be nice, and doing well in the rankings is an indicator of some pretty prolonged success. That matters to me. But will I be No. 1 a year from now? It's hard to say. It's tight at the top. Hopefully, I'll be right there.

Which is more important to you -- winning a major or being No. 1?

A major. And if you win a major, chances are you're going to be pretty high in the rankings anyway. But even if I win the PGA Championship, I can't say it would be a better season than what I had in 2013. I won both Tour finals, both overall titles. I walked away with five trophies. It's going to be very hard to top that.

If you were to retire tomorrow, would you be content with your career?

It's been a great journey. There's more I'd like to do, but I've accomplished more than I could have ever dreamed. I've traveled the world and played golf for a living. I would deserve a slap across the face if I wasn't happy with what I've achieved.

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