Stenson enters Masters with confidence of a major champion
After two career slumps and seven top-four major championship finishes, a 40-year-old Henrik Stenson believed that his major moment awaited him at the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon.
“I felt like this was going to be my turn,” he said after putting the finishing strokes on a masterpiece 63 in an epic Sunday duel with Phil Mickelson. “It’s not something you want to run around and shout, but I felt like this was going to be my turn. I knew I was going to have to battle back if it wasn’t, but I think that was the extra self-belief that made me go all the way.”
With one of the greatest major championship performances in history, the Swede put an end to all the questions about winning the big one. He’d already won a Players Championship (2009) and concluded a remarkable 2013 campaign by winning the season finales at East Lake and Dubai to become the first player to claim the season-long points races on both the PGA and European tours.
But beating Mickelson, who shot a Sunday 65 in what evolved into a head-to-head contest reminiscent of the famous “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 British Open at Turnberry, was a defining moment that elevated Stenson despite being “on the back nine of my career.”
“It makes it even more special to beat a competitor like Phil,” he said. “He’s been one of the best to play the game, and certainly in the last 20 years. So to come out on top after such a fight with him over these four days, it makes it even more special.”
Despite a surge in young superstars who are crowding the leaderboards in major championships, Stenson remains one of the most consistent stars on the world tours. Winning the claret jug wasn’t a finish line.
“Yes, we’re only just getting started, aren’t we?” he said. “You never know once you open the floodgates what might happen.”
Stenson had 10 top-10 finishes in 14 starts dating back to his victory in Germany last summer as he headed into the build-up month before the Masters. Being introduced on the first tee at his 12th consecutive Masters appearance as the reigning Open champion will only fuel his desire more.
“The difference I felt playing at the PGA last year is really when you got one, you certainly want to have another one,” he said, having finished seventh at Baltusrol before winning a silver medal in the Olympics. “Not that there was any lacking of wanting before I had the Open.
“I think it could just help you go after it a little more aggressive if you have the opportunity. That’s what I felt at Baltusrol – that even coming into the last six holes or whatever, I was two or three shots back and I really needed something to happen. I think because you have that one, then you’re willing to maybe play a little more aggressive and take greater chances if you need to to try to have a chance to win a second time.”
Stenson has had his moments at the Masters. In 2012, when the opening round commenced on his birthday, he surged to an early lead with eagles on both front-nine par-5s and reached 6-under through 15 holes. A three-putt bogey on No. 16 and a record-typing quadruple-bogey 8 from the trees and mud on the 18th spoiled his birthday and doomed his chances.
In 11 Masters starts, his best finish is a tie for 14th among five top-20 finishes.
“I’ve had my challenges there,” he said. “This will be my 12th year in a row I’m going there. Still haven’t cracked the top 10. I’ve got some work ahead of me, and I’ve got my ideas how to try and make it happen. But there’s constantly been kind of tweaks and different approaches, and so far, we haven’t found the right one obviously.
“I’ve got a number of reasons why I think I haven’t played as well as I would have liked to at Augusta. I’m not going to bore you with all of them, even though you’re curious to hear them all.
“I remember one time, probably when I played my best in 2013, Houston was actually two weeks before. So then of course I went home (after finishing runner-up in Houston) and tried to reinvent my game again and came back to Augusta and played much worse than I did two weeks earlier.”
Stenson ranks the second half of his 2013 season as the best run of his career – a continuous string of wins and near-misses that ironically started with his only runner-up major finish to Mickelson in the Open at Muirfield.
But his game right now is pretty close to his best.
“I really peaked at the right times at some of the tournaments I wanted to play well at, but I didn’t necessarily play as good or as great as I did for a four- or five-month stretch in ’13,” he said. “I’d say that’s my best stretch, but it’s hard not to rate 2016 as my best year given that I won the Open and played well at the Olympics and won in Germany and quite a lot of other strong finishes.”
Stenson, who turns 41 on the eve of the Masters, believes he still has at least four more peak years left in him through another Olympics.
“That will be kind of around the time where I would potentially have a look in the mirror and see if we want to keep on going or if we want to try and wind down,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s seasoned enough to believe that should a few more major opportunities present themselves, he has what it takes to cash in.
“It certainly gives me the confidence, going out and shooting a 63 in a final round when it matters the most,” he said of his closing score at Troon that matched the record low in any major. “Of course, if I’m a couple of shots back going into Sunday, I know I’ve done it before. So I know I can do it again. Of course, that’s a nice feeling to have.”