The Unsinkable Henrik Stenson
The mischievous Swede's climb to No. 3 in the world should surprise no one. Comebacks are his thing
Henrik Stenson has a rash.
Unfortunately, it's spreading over an indelicate part of his anatomy. Even more unfortunately, it appeared during a tournament in South Africa and now, a few days later, he's squirming in a rental car outside his new home in southern Sweden, some 5,000 miles from the office of his personal physician in Florida.
Which is why Stenson, with considerable dexterity, snapped a selfie of the afflicted area and texted it to his doctor. And why his doctor texted back: "Does it itch?" And why Stenson, alight with boyish glee, replied: "No, you idiot! I just wanted to send you a picture of my ass."
The phrase "thanks for sharing" pops into your head again and again as you're made party to the intimate moments of Stenson, an incorrigible smart-ass who has scratched toward the top of the World Ranking despite a rash of setbacks (psychic, physical, personal) that required extensive therapy. "I'm not Tiger Woods-famous," protests the 37-year-old Swede. "I'm not even the most famous golfer in Sweden. I'm not even the most famous Henrik in Sweden." With apologies to Annika Sorenstam and soccer legend Henrik Larsson, any of that could change in an instant.
Unlike his childhood hero -- the great brooding tennis player Björn Borg -- Stenson doesn't ooze milky Swedish angst. He talks in a kind of sardonic rumble, laughing often and easily. "Henrik is a lot drier than most Swedes," says his caddie, Gareth Lord, a native of England. "He's more British. He does irony really well."
This is an unrepentant prankster who (literally) shocks other players by tricking them into signing autographs with a low-voltage pen, who has hit a shot in his underpants, who named his snowmobile Stalin (it's a red menace) and who insists the best tip he ever passed along was: "Don't eat yellow snow." (Evidently, Stenson learned the hard way). "You never grow up," Stenson says. "You just learn how to act in public."
Asked how he'd prefer to die, he breaks into his trademark grin, an airy acceptance of whatever's next. The full catastrophe! "Peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather," he deadpans. "Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car."
Between the ropes -- his clear green eyes concealed by wraparound shades -- Stenson often seems to be the calmest player on the course, the one with a slow resting heartbeat, the best in a tight spot. A spectacularly smooth mix of power and touch, he moves with the sure economy of a practiced artist. "He's brilliant at getting into the 'delivery' position early," says Pete Cowen, his swing coach. "Three-quarters of the way through his downswing, he almost has the capacity to change his mind about what shot he is going to hit."
Stenson is perhaps the most ridiculously rational player on the PGA Tour. Few rival his mental clarity, his ability to identify how best to get from point A to point B. "Henrik always looks like he's decided never to doubt any decision he makes," says retired Swedish pro Helen Alfredsson. "No matter how weird things get -- and with Henrik, things have gotten pretty weird -- he moves on."
Where Stenson has been and where he is now is no laughing matter. In May 2009 he won the so-called fifth major, The Players Championship, climbing to No. 4 in the world. A couple of months earlier he had learned that one of his sponsors, Stanford Financial Group, had been shut down by the feds for operating a Ponzi scheme. Stenson ultimately lost a significant chunk of his savings, perhaps as much as $7 million. The scam's mastermind, Allen Stanford, was later convicted of fraud and sentenced to 110 years in prison. No money has been returned to Stenson.
Not surprisingly, Stenson's game soon headed in the same direction as his brokerage account: south. Still, he made no excuses, even when beset by serious health problems -- one brought on by a waterborne parasite he picked up while vacationing in the Maldives. He struggled mightily, making only 14 of 25 cuts worldwide in 2011 and finishing in the top 20 just twice.
By February 2012, Stenson had slipped to No. 230 in the world and appeared to be in a slow slide to oblivion. But in 2013 -- for the second time in his career -- he resurrected himself, putting together a torrid run that few golfers besides Tiger Woods have experienced over the last decade. Starting at the Scottish Open, he practically ran the table with six top-three finishes in eight events. He finished second in the British Open and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and third in the PGA Championship.
After winning the Deutsche Bank Championship (finishing at a commanding 22 under) and the Tour Championship, he claimed a lucrative double by becoming the first player to win the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour and the European Tour's Race to Dubai in the same year. At the DP World Tour Championship he hit a staggering 68 of 72 greens in regulation and ended the final round with a tap-in eagle on the 18th. That secured an eight-under 64 for a tournament-record 25 under and a six-stroke victory. He closed out 2013 third on the World Ranking and well within reach of the top two, Woods and Adam Scott.
A victory at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai was also on the docket in '13. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Counting the $10 million bonus he pocketed after the FedEx clincher at East Lake and the $1 million Race to Dubai bonus, Stenson amassed nearly $18 million in on-course earnings during his final 11 events of the 2013 season. "It's only money," says Stenson, smiling like he just found a set of gold-plated Honmas in his Christmas stocking. "And money is only paper."
Has all that papering changed his life? "I guess the big difference is media interest," Stenson says. "Until very recently only five reporters would show up at my press conferences. Now it can be anywhere up to seven." He's joking, of course. These days journalists tend to throw themselves at him in thick, lapping waves.
Borg's relationship with Swedish journalists was so bad that he addressed them in English. Stenson is adept at handling the press. "Henrik has tremendous integrity," says Göran Zachrisson, the most prominent golf commentator on Swedish television. "He's the same now as he was as a teenager. He's never been afraid to speak his mind, and he doesn't ingratiate himself just for the sake of it. We appreciate his bluntness."