The posh clubhouse at Orlando’s Lake Nona Golf & Country Club is quiet today — except for the laughter coming from the corner where Henrik Stenson is sitting. The 41-year-old Swede, who lives in the Lake Nona community with his wife, Emma, and their young family, is so unexpectedly loose — so not the black-clad killer he plays on the golf course — that with the slightest prompting he tunelessly croons a chorus of “The Sign.” That oddball Ace of Base smash is arguably the only Swedish export more quizzical than Stenson himself, whose 20 worldwide wins include six on the PGA Tour and, most unforgettably, the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon, where he outgunned Phil Mickelson for his first major in a final-round showdown for the ages. If Stenson’s intensity has been a little under-rewarded (just one major after nearly two decades of top-flight play?), it’s also a lot misunderstood. Because far from being a 3-wood-lashing cyborg, Stenson brings a funny and refreshing bluntness to his conversation — if you can get him to stop slaughtering that Ace of Base tune.
For the average golf fan, the perception is that you’re The Terminator, a no-nonsense, ballstriking, shades-wearing assassin. Away from the course, are you as lethal as you look on the course?
[Laughs] Nowhere near. But when it’s game time, it’s game time. I’m trying my hardest to play my best. All that focus and energy goes into playing. On television, they only show the shots we’re hitting. They’re not gonna broadcast the three minutes between shots, when we’re goofing around a bit. So no, I’m definitely not that serious guy when I’m off the golf course.
Within a round, is it difficult to turn the intensity on and off?
Yeah, but you have to. I mean, you can’t be focused for four hours straight, so it’s about getting that 20 or 30 seconds when you’re preparing for and executing the shot. That’s when you want to be focused, but then you want to come out of it, ’cause otherwise it’s gonna drain you. When I play my best, I’m super focused when I’m hitting the shots and relaxed away from it. When I’m walking, I’m talking with my playing partners, with my caddie. I’m quite laid back — and I like to have a good time when I’m away from the golf course.
What else do golf fans not know about you?
Well, they know I have a temper. [Laughs] I’ve got loads of patience, but once it runs out it runs out, and then I’ve got a pretty short fuse. There’s been a few clubs retired, which are not my proudest moments. But it’s a way to get rid of frustration. I’m very hard on myself and on my golf game. I demand a lot, and if I’m not playing to a certain standard, eventually I will, you know, make that known! But you reset and move on. I’m sure there are better ways to do it, but I haven’t really managed to find those.
Conversely, and despite the public’s perception of you as a hard case, you’re known on Tour for your sense of humor.
Well, I like to have a good time. I think I’ve got a dry sense of humor. More British, you know? I always say I speak three languages: Swedish, English and sarcasm. In the U.S., sarcasm is not always the right way to go — you shoot a little bit above the goal.
Especially when the sarcasm comes with a Swedish accent. Americans don’t always grasp that, do they?
I’m sure there’s been one or two occasions where it’s like, “Did he really mean that?” No, I didn’t.
You describe yourself as, first and foremost, Lisa, Karl and Alice’s dad. What’s more difficult, rolling in a putt for a win on the 72nd hole or parenting three kids under the age of 11?
Depends on how long the putt is and how much break it’s got. [Laughs] If it’s a three-footer, it’s probably easier than three kids, if it’s a 15-footer, it might be easier with three kids.
What would you say is the most rewarding thing about being a dad?
Well, they certainly don’t care [if you shoot a] 75 or 65. You can have a bad day and you still get a good reception when you come off the golf course. The love you get from them — I mean, it’s really amazing.
You’ve talked about regretting some of your displays of anger on the course. Do you remember any other particularly vivid moments of embarrassment as a player?
Oh, I don’t have that many. I think I can take it on the chin. Although at Augusta this year, I almost killed half the crowd to the left of the 14th fairway. I came over the top on my three-wood, nicked it and — woof — that thing came out so low everyone was ducking. I was like, “That’s a little bit below standard, isn’t it?” [Laughs] I’m just happy I didn’t kill someone.
Memorably, to play a shot out of water, you dropped trou at Doral in 2009. That’s not on your list of embarrassments?
Well, I’m Swedish, you know? We’re kinda easygoing. Up until that moment, I would say I’d had a pretty successful career, but that picture of me in my underwear — that kind of overtook everything. But I did it for the love of the game! I saved the shot. Playing it out of that mud, I almost saved two shots. I didn’t wanna finish my round covered in mud, so, you know, off [the pants] went, and when they went the [shirt] went, too.
Is there anyone on Tour you’d highly recommend not do what you did there?
No. They can all go for it. Actually, at the time, I think Phil said he wouldn’t do it. So if he doesn’t want to do it, he shouldn’t do it.
You mention Phil. How did your showdown with him at the ’16 Open Championship at Troon — your first major victory — change your life?
Things got a lot busier — more demand on my time. It’s had its challenges. But to win a major championship, and especially, as a European, the Open Championship — that was the one I started watching when I was a kid. I don’t get tired of looking at the Claret Jug, that’s for sure.
After all you’ve gone through in your life and your career, what’s more rewarding when you think back on that week: the 63 you shot on Sunday to win, the face-off with Phil, or the win itself?
It was rewarding in many different ways. It was a bonus to go out and play as well as I did and to have such a great battle with Phil over the last day and a half. To take him down, man against man, and get your name in the history books — that’s special. But also, like you say, I’d had some pretty big ups and downs before that.
I’m sure you’ve run into Phil many times since that win. Have the two of you talked about that day?
No. As long as Phil doesn’t want to talk about it, I’m not gonna be the one bringing it up. I think it was a bit of a painful moment for him. He had a great chance to win a second Claret Jug, and I came in the way of that. We’ve both gone through ups and downs, through good and bad moments in our careers. But I think it’s easier to accept defeat when you play as well as he did that day. So, no, it’s not something we talk a lot about. I’ve got a lot of respect for Phil as a player and as a person, and we kind of moved on.
Now that you’re a major champion, how strong is the drive to get number two?
I always believed I had what it took to get it done. Obviously, I had to wait a long time to get the first one, but, yeah, it’d certainly be nice to give that Claret Jug some company.
Is there one of the remaining three majors you’d like to win more than the others?
I’d take any. I said that before I had the Open. But if it was only to be one, this is the one I would have liked to have.
Despite a late-season win at the Wyndham, 2017 turned out to be a bumpy year for you. Was there a hangover effect after Troon?
I think so, yeah. As the defending Open champion, it was really busy, especially in the beginning of 2017. So there was a little loss of energy and focus. At some point you’re gonna run out of steam, and I did that in the spring. But any year where you win on the PGA Tour is a pretty nice year, and as I look back on this season, there were fairly decent performances in there — a win and a couple of other top-10 finishes. It certainly hasn’t been a bad year, but I guess you always get compared to your best stuff.
You missed cuts at the Masters and U.S. Open. Was there a point this past season where you felt particularly frustrated?
If there was one disappointment, that was it: I didn’t show up at the majors with a good enough game to contend. I was trying. In my Open defense, and at [the PGA at] Quail Hollow, I finished just outside the top 10. But obviously, it’s not nearly close enough if you want to have a chance on Sunday. So for sure, that would be the aim going into ’18: to play better at a few of the majors.
Your win at the Wyndham seemed to come out of nowhere. In fact, you played the event only to make sure you satisfied your PGA Tour minimum. But instead of going through the motions, you ended up shooting 62-66-66-64 to set a scoring record at the event and grab your sixth career Tour victory. How satisfying was that?
Oh, it was great — especially the way I finished. It was a tight race. On Sunday, I think there were four guys sharing the lead after eight holes. And to be able to pull away — to finish with the birdies when I needed them, especially since Ollie Schniederjans was also making fireworks coming in — was very pleasing.
Recently, the International team took a pretty good thumping at the Presidents Cup. That followed a Euro loss at the 2016 Ryder Cup. As a member of that losing Ryder Cup team, are you motivated to get back there in 2018, on European turf, in France?
Yeah. I mean, it’s never fun to lose the Ryder Cup. But I’ve said this before: I’d rather be part of a losing Ryder Cup team than to not be part of the team. It’s an amazing week: the match formats, the dynamic within the team and within the partnerships, the crowds. Obviously, it’s very different playing away and at home — you’ve either got the whole crowd with you or the whole crowd against you. It’s two different experiences. I’ve tried it on each side of the Atlantic and it’s been great fun. But, yeah, I’ll certainly be trying my hardest to make sure I’m there in 2018.
Play Ryder Cup captain for a second. If your team needs one point on Sunday in a singles match, who are you sending out there?
There have been a few of our guys that played really well in the singles. I think G-Mac has been strong. Graeme McDowell has brought home that point a lot of times. I’ll pick G-Mac.
It’s interesting you didn’t name yourself.
That’s because I’ve already got them four points in the better ball and foursomes. [Laughs]
Which current American would you really want to go out and try to beat in singles?
‘Cause I beat him in the last Ryder Cup.
We were going head to head at the Tour Championship in ’15 when he made those long putts on me and won the FedEx Cup. Then I got him back a little bit at the singles at the ’16 Ryder Cup. But yes, I like Jordan. We have a good relationship, and we’ve played a lot together. It’s always that friendly rivalry. I’ll take Jordan again.
You turn 42 in April. Does watching guys like Jordan and Justin Thomas, both of whom are 18 years younger than you, motivate you going into the new year? Or does doubt creep into your head about trying to compete with the young guns?
No. At many different times over the last couple of years, I’ve proven I can compete with, and beat, the young guys. I mean, I was 40 when I won the biggest prize of my career. So, obviously, experience is important. But you learn to maximize your time, because maybe you don’t have quite the same energy as you once did; your days are a bit more limited and you can’t put the body through the same amount of practice as you did when you were 23. So you have to be smarter in certain aspects with time management and efficiency. You have to use that experience to your advantage, and by doing that I hope I can stay competitive another number of years.
Before your Open win, you talked about a four or five major-championship plan. That’s ambitious. Is that how long you see yourself playing at the top level?
Roughly. I haven’t put any dates on it. There’s no question I’m on the back nine of my career, but as long as I can stay competitive and motivated and play good enough to have a chance to win, I’ll be around. I think it’s gonna be tough the day I feel like I’m not playing really well and I can’t put myself in contention. Then I might start thinking about doing something else, ’cause I’m a competitor. I love the rush of being in that situation. I love to practice. I love the game. But I’m not sure if, you know, just loving to play golf is gonna be enough if I can’t compete. At that point, I might look at something else to do.
So the Champions tour and playing ceremonial golf doesn’t interest you?
Highly unlikely. I mean, I don’t like making promises I can’t keep, so I’m not saying “100 percent no.” But a lot of senior golf doesn’t seem likely in my future. I’ve always had to practice a lot and practice hard to get my game to the highest level. And there’s plenty of other stuff I’d like to do, you know? When you’re away as often as I am, you’re missing out on things with your kids. There are golf courses to design. I’ve got my own eyewear company, my foundation. Helping out the next generations in Sweden. I mean, there’s heaps of stuff I can do. I’m not gonna be sitting at home doing nothing, that’s for sure.