Henrik Stenson: I loved Augusta the moment I saw it, but I'm not sure it loved me

James Corrigan
In 12 appearances, Henrik Stenson's best Masters finish is a tie for 14th - Getty Images North America

Henrik Stenson should have known Augusta was not his sort of place from the very first visit. He turned up as a spectator in 1999, strongly fancied Jose Maria Olazabal to don his second green jacket, and then slept through the alarm he had set ring his mother in Sweden to put his bet on in time.

Yes, Olazabal won. At 50-1.

That would have been a lot of money - in pounds, euros, dollars or krona - for a first-year professional with dreams bigger than his wallet. Stenson was only in Georgia that week because his future wife, Emma Lofgren, was in college in the neighbouring state of South Carolina and he managed “to cadge a ticket”. 

“I loved it from the moment I saw it,” Stenson recalls. “The problem is, I’m not sure it loved me.”

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Certainly, the 41-year-old’s record suggests an unrequited love. In 12 appearances, his best finish is a tie for 14th. “Not good is it?” Stenson said with a laugh. “It doesn’t even obey the law of averages.”

No, but Augusta National has it own laws, and not just the fact fans must be called “patrons”, there are no mobile phones on the grounds, or no running. There are some players it just does not suit, regardless of their standing. Just in Britain alone, the great Tony Jacklin never finished better than 12th, while in 15 attempts, Colin Montgomerie, the Scot who racked up no fewer than seven top fives in the other three majors, managed just one Masters top 10 - eighth in 1998. It makes no sense. But to Stenson, it does.

How long until the 2017 Masters gets underway at Augusta?

“I know why I have not done well there yet, but I don’t want to go into too much detail as I don’t want to bore you or your readers,” he says. “The biggest factor has been that I’ve never really arrived here with my A game and simply have not been playing well enough to win. 

"But even then, maybe I would have backed myself into a top 10 or something. The problem for me is that I’m a good driver and with its wide fairways I don’t get the advantage I would in other courses. And there’s no sort of in-between shots and I guess they’re something I play a lot of.

“Something that would have been a decent 20‑foot birdie putt on a regular week tends to take a little reach and end up far away from the pin. You either hit a good shot or a great shot and get a really good chance for birdie. Otherwise, you end up with a poor shot. But yeah, it’s combination of things. And any other thoughts would be greatly appreciated.”

Henrik Stenson has yet to crack Augusta National Credit: AFP

In truth, Stenson has more than enough brains in his corner working it out. There is Pete Cowen, the now legendary coach from Yorkshire, who has twice pieced the Swede back together from seemingly irreparable plummets in the rankings, and there is Gareth Lord, the caddie from Coventry, who has helped develop so much control to the devastating armoury in his employer’s bag. There is also Phil Kenyon, the putting guru from Southport, who has ironed out the short game weakness. Together they have developed a plan for lucky 13.

“My strategy will be to play more aggressively, shoot more for the pins, and try to make those great shots,” Stenson suggests. “I feel like I’ve play too defensively in the past, because if you're looking at the winners, they make about 20 birdies in the week. So there's no point going out there trying to make 14 birdies and no bogeys because that’s still going to come up short. And no, I don’t just want to finish fifth to make my record better around Augusta. 

"That wouldn’t be of much use to me. I actually think I've got the game for this course and I’ve just got to think back to The Open. After that, I should know nothing is beyond me.”

Henrik Stenson won The Open Championship in 2016 Credit: PA

Royal Troon was the validation his career demanded, not merely in the lifting of the claret jug but in the manner of its securing. In 2013, Stenson had amazed the accountants by first securing the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup, with its £8.96 million bounty, and then the next month the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, with its £2.2 million reward.

He was the master of both circuits and a veritable hero in the bank after recovering the fortune he lost in the Allen Stanford scandal. Alas, the purists were still not purring. Until last July, that is, when they got their cream.

Stenson’s final-round 63 to beat an inspired Phil Mickelson was the round of this century thus far and rivalled any which came before. It raised him from a prolific winner, a world’s top five fixture and successful Ryder Cup player, to the realms of history.

In his own mind, Stenson became a different golfer. “It’s the inner confidence that brings, it’s hard to explain,” he said. “I will always know I can do it, not just win a major, which, of course, is huge and clearly so hard to do, but win one like that.

Henrik Stenson is one of the world's finest golfers Credit: STUART NICOL

“Of course, it probably will never happen again to me like that, but that doesn’t matter as I know it’s within me. Mentally and physically, I was so attuned and that is rare. What my mind said to do, my body and swing obliged and my mind did not flinch. I never doubted I would win. The point is, I probably will not have to play as well as that to win another major if I put my myself into the position. It changed everything, really.”

Well, not exactly everything. There was no competitive hangover, as there plainly has been with Danny Willett since his Georgia triumph 12 months ago. Stenson finished seventh in the USPGA two weeks later and then second in the Olympics. And there have been four more runner-up placings since. What did Stenson have that Willett did not?

“Experience, I was more prepared,” Stenson says. “Not with my age, but with dealing with the situation. In 2013, when I won the order or merits on both Tours, it was big thing, I was challenging for world No 1 and everybody wanted a piece of me. I can see you now, rolling your eyes, thinking ‘the poor thing had to do more with the sponsors, media and fans’.

“But a professional golfer’s week in a tournament is all about routines and what best works for them to give them the possible chance to win. And all of a sudden you are out of that routine because of people wanting interviews or selfies or what have you.

Danny Willett was the centre of attention last year Credit: GETTY IMAGES

"It’s very fine margins. It saps the energy, both physically and emotionally, so that when you’re on the first tee on Thursday you’re not where you should be. It takes time to adjust and I had that learning experience in 2013. Danny had not, but he’ll be fine.”

As will Stenson, whatever happens in the remaining years of his career. It is hard to think of a more popular character on the Tours who, apart from the occasional dismantling of a tee-box marker with a five iron, seems so happy in his own skin and life, with his wife of 10 years and their three children, Lisa, Karl and Alice. But behind the wacky, pranking persona, there is an ambition which still burns, even this week. In fact, especially this week.

“The way I look at it, I’ve had my slumps and the one in 2011 to 2012 everybody said I'd never come back from - but I did,” he said. “So I’m only listening to my body and it tells me that, despite a couple of knee operations, I’m still healthy. 

"People always say, you’re surrounded by kids in the world rankings. Well, yes, and maybe that keeps me young, the challenge to keep up with them. When the best I think I can do is finish 30th, I’ll be out of here, but if there’s even a one per cent chance I can win that will me keep going, so long as the body is willing. There are things to do yet. I’d hope that I could be an Open champion and a Masters champion, as I think they’re a good fit. And that’s not impossible. Not totally, anyway.”

Henrik Stenson is a proud ambassador of HUGO BOSS. www.hugoboss.com

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