The K Club in Dublin, Ireland, does crazy things to Henrik Stenson. There he was last September leaning over the clubhouse balcony, toasting yet another European win in the Ryder Cup. Nothing unusual about that — except the Swede was wearing a green wig. “Ah, yes, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” Stenson, 31, says, laughing. Five years earlier at the K Club, Stenson wasn’t quite so chipper. Struck with a wicked case of driver yips at the European Open, he walked off mid-round. That moment of despair sparked a two-year purgatory in which Stenson rebuilt his swing — and confidence — a transformation that has propelled him to No. 5 in the World Ranking. It is a stunning turnaround for a player whose steely on-course demeanor and signature Terminator sunglasses belie a goofy, fun-loving side, and a clear indication of why the other Swedish pros dubbed Stenson “The Special One.”
A European hasn’t won a major since Paul Lawrie in 1999. Many, including Nick Faldo, think you’re the next in line. How’s that for pressure? Yeah, there have been a lot of sleepless nights. I’m crying myself to sleep. [Laughs.] No, I don’t feel extra pressure because none of us in Europe has won a major since Lawrie. It doesn’t bother me. I think we can turn it around soon. It wouldn’t bother me too much if I were the next one to win one.
As recently as 2002, your game was in shambles. Today you’re No. 5 in the world. Do you feel you belong among the game’s elite? I can’t say that I should be No. 5 in the world, but I think I’ve established myself within the top 20, and then just recently moved into the top 10.
Breaking into the Top 5 must help your confidence. It is nice to have hit the fifth spot, and I have a little competition with myself to see how high up in the world I can get. It is a reflection of how well I have played in the last 18 months. I established myselfand got to No. 11 last year, and winning tournaments certainly gives you more confidence. But I don’t feel I am a different player than when I was 11th.
But are you walking a bit taller these days? Yeah, it’s on paper now that I can beat pretty much anybody in match play and stroke play. That’s gonna make you feel a quarter of an inch taller, if not half an inch. When I get to a tournament, I feel I have a big chance to win. Maybe not as big a chance as Tiger Woods, but I have won some big tournaments and hopefully I can win some bigger ones.
Can you get to No. 1 in the world? We can have a new discussion if I get to No. 2. Knowing how well I’ve played recently, and then seeing I only have one-third of the points that Tiger has, I realize how well I have to do to catch him. But if I reach No. 2, I’ll set my goals on becoming No. 1. Hopefully Tiger will have retired by then, too — he’s almost half a year older than me!
Tell us about the bad times, like when you walked off the course at the 2001 European Open. I had to hit three drives before I could find a ball to continue playing on the first hole. The first couple of provisional balls don’t bother you that much, but, after a while, when your caddie is rattling in the golf bag to see if he’s got a provisional when you’re standing over a drive, you know you’ve got some sort of a problem. [Laughs.]
Your swing and confidence just disintegrated? Yep, I lost one then the other. I had no idea where my drives were going to go. One went 400 yards left and another went 400 yards right. By the time we got to the 18th green [my ninth hole], I’d had enough. I just couldn’t carry on. I told the guys [playing partners Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sandy Lyle] that they’d be better off without me.
You plummeted to 176th in Europe the following year. What was life like at that time? I wondered if I was going to be like Ian Baker-Finch [the 1991 British Open champion], who was a great player and then lost it completely and never got it back. I felt depressed and embarrassed to be seen on the course. But I have never been a quitter. I was quite good at separating how bad I was playing and feeling on the golf course and leaving it there at the course. But of course I was down in the dumps for a while. Everybody who has played this game long enough understands how it feels when you are playing shitty.
Were your problems technical or mental? It started with bad shots and then became a mental problem. I even practiced hitting balls with my eyes shut because I was thinking too much about what I was trying to do. I was scared to hit the ball. All I could see were hazards, not opportunities.
What ran through your mind in your lowest moments? The driver was my favorite club. It went from being my biggest strength to my biggest weakness. You start thinking, When am I going to play well again? I was working so hard but getting nothing back from my game. But coming out of it has made me a stronger player.
Did you think about quitting? I was the first guy on the range and the last guy off, and I would still play like crap. But I kept fighting and never really considered walking away from the game.
How did sports psychologist Torsten Hansson get you back on track? When I was completely lost with my swing, I just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. I felt that way the pain would be over quickly. He got me working on tempo, slowing me down. I had the driving yips. Like Bernhard Langer with his putting. [Torsten gave me] some understanding of the way [the] mind works, and that it can play some nasty tricks on you.
Are you worried your demons might return? When you’ve had a bad patch, you will probably be stronger if you get close to recognizing those feelings beginning to come back again. But I am not worried that something is going to suddenly happen and I’m going to start spraying it all over the place. Everybody hits bad shots at some time. But I’m not walking around thinking, Am I going to end up like that again?
Holding off Woods and Ernie Els at the Dubai Desert Classic earlier this year must have been empowering. It’s always nice to beat Tiger, obviously. But to play four rounds with Ernie and beat him, too, gives me pretty much the same satisfaction.
You hit 66 of 72 greens in regulation. Is that what it takes to beat Tiger? That’s the sort of mindset I had going. Just try to grind it out, fairways and greens, to give myself chances and try to wear the other guys out. And I guess I succeeded in the end.
Does Zach Johnson beating Woods at the Masters suddenly make Woods more human, more susceptible? Yeah, it gives everyone that feeling. If Zach can do it, so can I.
Were you stunned by how tough Augusta National played? It was over the edge a little bit. You are always going to struggle with bad shots, but the way it was set up you were struggling with the good shots as well. It was touch and go. You can always debate what’s fair, but everyone was playing the same course. It’s like you’re in a boxing match and you get knocked down each round. You just have to keep getting back up.
Did Augusta get it wrong? It’s a thin line. They have control over most things, but they can’t control the weather, even though you might think they can.
It didn’t look like too many players were having fun out there. It’s debatable, at a major, how much fun you’re having. It’s a battle from the first tee shot to the last putt. They all want a champion who is mentally strong, who can take all the hits on the chin and carry on. I know I have the game to win the Masters.
But as a European, is the British Open the major that you most want? Actually, I’ve learned from playing in the majors that the British Open is probably the one that might least suit my game. I’m not that good at all those bump-and-run chip shots you need around the greens. So I’m thinking more that the U.S. Open or the PGA Championship might be the ones I’ll have a better chance to win. While the British Open was always the dream, if I won one of the others, I wouldn’t give it back. Any one of them will do.
What did you learn from holding, and losing, the 36-hole lead at the PGA Championship at Medinah last year? Starting the third round, I was tied for the lead and I just went for a shot over a bunker on the first hole to try to make a birdie. Instead I hit it in the sand and made bogey. That’s the danger in a major. When you have the lead, you feel you want to play aggressively. But major courses can bite back. I was 2 over after four holes and never got going. In the future, I will play a little more conservatively and try to grind out some chances to get myself in contention coming into the back nine on Sunday. Because you are not going to win the tournament if you birdie the 37th hole on Saturday. I got too greedy at the PGA. But at least it signaled a return to form.
Your play at the 2006 Ryder Cup did, too. Do you feel robbed of glory because with all the attention on Darren Clarke no one remembers that you holed the winning putt? It doesn’t really matter that it has gone unnoticed. We would have won anyway with or without that putt. It would have been nice to have a moment like Paul McGinley at the Belfry in 2002. But the team won, and that is the most important statistic.
How has a small country like Sweden produced so many top golfers? It is definitely down to how easy it is to play when you are a youngster. It is cheap and accessible. It’s amazing. We are only 9 million people. Golf is becoming so international now. China and India will produce top golfers in the future, too. Tiger has influenced that. He has attracted more kids to watch the game. And, hopefully, the rest of us will bring in a handful, too.
What does Jesper Parnevik think about you having displaced him as the highest-ranked Swede ever? I haven’t run into him yet. But I will tease him when I see him next. Maybe that will motivate him to come back. He has always been the biggest influence on golf in Sweden.
Are all Swedish Tour pros a little kooky? I am one of the more sensible ones. I don’t do the dippy stuff. I wouldn’t dress in extreme ways like Jesper and Jarmo Sandelin.
You’re not fooling anyone — we know about your reputation as a prankster. OK, but I can’t tell you about most of [those pranks].
Give us one. OK, when we were playing in China once, I went to a market and bought a pen that gave you an electric shock when you clicked the top to make the point come out. I went along the range all week getting guys to write down their e-mail addresses. [Laughs.] No one trusts me with a pen anymore.
Why do you wear those wraparound shades? My eyes are very sensitive to light so it’s better than squinting all the time. I’ve had them since 1997.
It doesn’t do you any harm that they also hide your poker-playing eyes, right? Yeah, I guess so. It can help you focus better and block out distractions. But that’s not why I wear them. And I don’t wear them if it’s raining. Oakley will have to design ones with wipers on the front.
Do you want to be famous? It’s nice to be recognized because I know it will be because I have done well. But I’m not running after you guys to do interviews and get photographed. It must be really tough for Tiger having so much focus on him all the time with people watching every step he takes. I’m far away from that sort of fame.
How did Fanny Sunesson, Nick Faldo’s former caddie, end up on your bag? I needed a new caddie after the 2006 Masters and her name just came up. She hopefully saw potential in my game and wanted to have one last go on Tour with a Swede.
Perhaps she can get some of Faldo’s magic to rub off on you. I am a hard worker like Nick, so she doesn’t mind spending hours and hours on the range. I used to follow Nick — and Seve — when I started playing. I hope I can take the consistency of Faldo and then do some of the other crazy stuff that Seve used to do. You know, hitting it sideways and getting up and down from all over the place.
In other words, the kind of game you need to win majors. Are you ready to take that next step? I got a taste of what it is like to lead a major at the PGA. I enjoyed the experience, and I now know what to expect when I get in that position again. I wouldn’t mind being the first Swede to win a major.