Henrik Stenson’s stoic visage hides a fragile psyche and a wicked sense of humor

September 24, 2013

ATLANTA—To appreciate the dizzying heights that have been reached by Henrik Stenson, golf’s newest $11.4 million man, it is necessary to revisit how far the newly minted FedEx Cup champ had fallen during his schizophrenic career. With his buffed physique, dark shades and stoic visage, “He’s like the Terminator,” says Luke Donald. Marc Calcavecchia likens Stenson to Robocop. But this intimidating exterior hides a very fragile psyche.

In 2001, as a rookie on the European Tour, Stenson won his 11th start. A star was born, or so it seemed, but 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 his breakfasts would be just so — and he tried to build on his maiden victory by tinkering with his mechanics. That led to swing problems, which begat a crisis of confidence. He hit rock-bottom at the 2001 European Open at the K Club, when he needed three tee shots on his first hole before he could put one in play. It only 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 worked with Stenson since his days on the Swedish national team. To help Stenson dig out of this epic slump, Hansson put him through what he calls extensive “mental-toughness training. The idea was to put Henrik in situations where he felt uncomfortable and force him to handle it.” Among the drills was walking on a balance beam, blindfolded. Stenson also hit buckets of balls wearing a blindfold in an effort to learn to trust himself again. All the work paid off with a redemptive victory in Europe in 2004, and for the next five years he was one of the top players in game, winning three times on the Euro Tour and taking the 2007 Match Play Championship and ’09 Players, peaking as high as No. 4 in the World Ranking.

It didn’t last.

Stenson fell into another slump in 2010, just as it was becoming clear that a significant chunk of his wealth had been lost in the fraudulent dealings of his one-time sponsor Stanford Financial. It didn’t help that he contracted viral pneumonia. By 2011, he failed to record a single top-10 on the PGA Tour and his swing was such a mess that he ranked 186th in total driving and 187th in greens in regulation. He plummeted to 230th in the world and yet Stenson soldiered on.

“Of course I've been low and frustrated at times,” Stenson says. “But I'm not giving up. I'm not a quitter. I'll always bounce back.”

Brick by brick he rebuilt his game, simplifying his action and streamlining his preparation. Stenson finally broke his victory drought late last year in South Africa and this comeback just keeps coming. He finished second at the British Open and third at the PGA Championship — with a tie for second at Firestone sandwiched in the middle — and then put a stranglehold on the FedEx Cup with a victory three weeks ago in Boston. It is indicative of Stenson’s ongoing fragility that in the next tournament after the win he beheaded his driver on the golf course and then destroyed his locker in the clubhouse at Conway Farms, both acts of frustration.

His occasional on-course meltdowns can give the wrong impression of Stenson — he’s actually a fun-loving character who can quote Talladega Nights like a holy text and has been a merry prankster going as far back as his teenaged years on the Swedish National team, when he was busted for hurling water balloons from a hotel balcony onto unsuspecting pedestrians.

Stenson is married with two kids, but he hasn’t grown up that much. A few years ago at the China Open he was delighted to find at an outdoor market in Beijing a device that looked like a pen but zapped its users with a surprisingly strong electrical current. As he recalls, gleefully, “I went around for days saying, ‘Hey, can I get your email address address?’ Then I would hand people this pen and they would, like, freak out.”

He clinched this FedEx Cup with some electric play at the Tour Championship. Sixteen birdies in his first 45 holes pushed him to a whopping nine-stroke lead, but it was trimmed to four as he struggled to play though a nasty rainstorm down the stretch on Saturday.

With so much on the line in the final round he played prevent defense most of the way, but after a surging Jordan Spieth trimmed the lead to one stroke Stenson responded with an aggressive birdie on the par-5 15th hole. He closed things out with gutsy par saves on 17 and 18. “It’s been a great day, a great week, a great year,” said the newly minted No. 4 player in the world.

For all the cash that accompanies this deeply satisfying victory, there is another very important perk that comes with the Cup: a five-year exemption. It seems unlikely that Stenson will fall into yet another slump, but it’s nice to know he has some job security, just in case.