Henrik Stenson: "Playing in boxers was fun"

The 2009 Players champion talks about tackling Sawgrass, dips in form, Ryder Cups and stripping down to his boxer shorts

TO BE honest I was a little bit wary of how this conversation may go. A few days previously the Swede had not only missed the cut at the Masters but had finished plumb last after rounds of 83 and 74 at Augusta National.

However a forced chat couldn’t have been further from the truth. Stenson is en route to Sawgrass, scene of his greatest triumph two years ago, and fellow Swede Peter Hanson is at the wheel ahead of a practice round and is being teased relentlessly.

In many ways Stenson is the man for the big occasion: he has not only won the Players Championship and the WGC-Accenture Match Play but he has also holed the winning putt in the Ryder Cup at the K Club.

The 35-year-old has spent over 100 weeks in the world’s top 10, been as high as 4th, and has five top 10s in the last 11 Majors. 

The past year or so might not have been the best but the sense of humour and perspective remain firmly in place.

The good times will surely roll again and, in the meantime, life remains sweet for Stenson and his young family. October to February is spent in Dubai before moving on to Florida and then enjoying a couple of months with family and friends in Sweden. 

He admits that the plan is to follow the sun which partly explains his sunny disposition.

What do you make of Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy not playing at Sawgrass and have the WGCs now overtaken the Players in terms of importance?

No, I don’t think so, I think the only reason they aren’t playing is solely down to the membership criteria and the scheduling. We have the rules in Europe and the rules in the States and everyone has different approaches. 

I was a member in 2007, then didn’t take it up the next two years, but have now which works well for me and my family.

You have won a WGC and the Players, do you rate one higher than the other?

Both are great to win and they mean a lot but, if I had to rank them, the Players would be bigger for me.

Why does it fit your eye so well?

I putted really solidly all week, I think I made everything from inside six feet and the rest of my game was solid. Then, on the last day in tough conditions, I shot six under. Strategically I could hit a lot of 3-woods – there are a lot of bottlenecks if you hit driver, so I was coming in from some great positions. I think I hit maybe three or four drivers a round whether I am confident with it or not.

When did you start using the pre-shot routine of swinging the club upside down? 

That was something I did when I won at the World Cup and Nedbank in 2009 – you know what it’s like with little drills that you try and then you change again to something else. 

I actually picked that up again on the range before the final round of the Players as I was not quite getting the strike. It wasn’t something that I did all week but it obviously worked. 

I might bring it out again today (in practice)!

What is your strategy for playing the 17th?

You have to be a bit careful with the pin down on the right-hand side because there is no room to miss that. 

You aim a couple of metres left and let the ball feed down to the hole. The back pins are also difficult as you have to get up on to the second tier and, if the wind drops, it can easily take one bounce and disappear into the water. They have changed the green a little bit but it is more or less similar.
I don’t think any captain can take the blame for how a whole team plays. As a player I take more blame than any that I put on the captain. How soon do you start thinking about the tee shot?
When you have played your approach to the 16th most of us will look right to the 17th and try and work out what the wind is doing. You can’t see what clubs the group ahead are hitting but you can see if they are generally coming up short or going long.
Also it is kind of hard not to look at it, people say they don’t look at leaderboards but there tends to be an enormous one every few holes which makes it quite difficult to avoid seeing.
When I won I had a birdie putt on 16 from four feet and I saw Ian Poulter hit his tee shot at 17 to eight feet. 
He then missed and I made mine so I had a four-shot lead so there wasn’t as much drama. I still hit it well away from the pin.

What have been the main reasons behind your struggles in the past year or so?
Pretty much all of last year was a struggle and this year hasn’t been great so I’m in a bit of a dip and trying to work my way out of it. I was also ill for almost eight weeks in total but was still trying to play because I didn’t know what the problem was. I still played Akron, PGA and Wyndham and I finished last. I was the one saving Tiger at Akron. 
So I had a long stretch of problems there and that obviously doesn’t help as well as playing poorly. I was as sick as a dog and played like a dog.

Have you turned to new people for new ideas?
No, I’ve been quite successful with the team I have and I probably need to go back to some of the principles I had in the past. I’m quite confident I will get back to where I was.

What makes Pete Cowen such a good coach?
He’s obviously got so much experience and has worked with so many top players, including the top player for a while in Lee Westwood. One of his strengths is that he was a good player himself and can always demonstrate how to do things, he really knows what works and doesn’t work.

If you are on different tours do you speak much during tournaments?
I don’t think he will call you up to say you are getting it a little bit low in the backswing if you have just shot 67 but, if you have shot 76, there is more chance of a call.

What about your work with the sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella?
We have been working together on and off since 2009 and, with the drop in form, we have been talking and seeing each other at tournaments a lot more lately! 
It depends how many players he has at a tournament but we would mainly talk during the practice days and sometimes after a tournament round but is mainly in the build-up to an event. 

You’ve been in contention in a few Majors, how different is the pressure on the final day?
I’ve not gone into the final round of a Major with a lead but the closest came at the PGA Championship in 2008. 
We had thunder delays so we played nine holes on the Sunday morning and, although I was playing in the final group, I didn’t have to sleep on it or wait half a day to go out.
I definitely felt like I was one of five guys who could win but Padraig Harrington was too good for us. 
Winning a Major means a lot more than winning a normal tournament so the nerves are obviously very different. 

How difficult is it, like Rory McIlroy, to see a lead disappear?
We have all had bad last days where you are back-paddling and everyone is flying past you. You make one mistake and it gets worse and worse. I really felt for Rory as it’s an awful feeling but it will happen and he will just have to shake it off. He will certainly be up there again in big tournaments.
He is very talented and very young and that will certainly help to bounce back.
When Rocco Mediate lost to Tiger in the US Open you kind of knew that was his big shot at winning a US Open.

You held the winning putt at the Ryder Cup at the K Club in 2006 and played at Valhalla in 2008 – so did you watch the action at Celtic Manor?
I did yes, I was playing myself in Mississippi but I missed the cut so got to watch plenty of it! You obviously want to be on the team but I didn’t play well enough. 
It was more the time in failing to qualify that was difficult but it wasn’t hard to watch at all, you want your friends to win.

At Valhalla you had three different partners in three outings. Did you expect that? 
I think we were trying too hard before the first day to try and get the ultimate pairings with who was playing well and we probably waited too late to finalise the pairs. Saying that if you win a series then, whatever you did, you made all the right moves and vice versa.
The Americans just played, and putted, better. 
Playing with Oliver Wilson was incredible, we were four down against Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim and won 2&1 so that was a great turnaround to win six of the last 12 holes. 
Then, to play with Robert Karlsson was very memorable and we halved in a great match with Phil and Hunter Mahan.

Was all the criticism of Nick Faldo justified?
I don’t know what it would have been like had Monty not won in Wales, it really does come down to winning or losing. 
I don’t think any captain can take the blame for how a whole team plays. As a player I take more blame than any that I put on the captain.
I’m sure there are things that he would have liked to have done better but I don’t think his relationship with the press has always been the best so it just felt like it was going to be tougher on him if it didn’t go to plan.

Was the team in Ireland as good as any that we have put out?
I think so, we played great as a team and as individuals. It felt like it was only going to go in one direction but we were determined, having seen what happened at Brookline in 1999, to take nothing for granted.

And what was Ian Woosnam like as a captain?
We had a quiet chat when he told me I wasn’t playing on the first morning (laughs) but I just remember a great atmosphere in the team room and Ian brought so much experience into that. 
Saying that it was the same at Valhalla, you still want to be part of a losing Ryder Cup team than not being there.

Finally, how often are you reminded of going down to your boxers to play that shot at Doral?
It is every event that I play. I have probably signed that picture thousands of times now. It’s a fun thing. 
I’m not sure I would get so many wolf whistles otherwise. It was probably a good thing to win the Players not long after so people don’t just remember me for taking my clothes off.

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