Golf WorldFebruary 11, 2014

The Unsinkable Henrik Stenson

The mischievous Swede's climb to No. 3 in the world should surprise no one. Comebacks are his thing

King of cool: Stenson by the North Sea during an early January visit to his home in Sweden.

King of cool: Stenson by the North Sea during an early January visit to his home in Sweden.

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."

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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."

henrik stenson

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.

Related: Henrik Stenson: Steal my feel

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.

henrik stenson

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."

Whether they appreciate his temper is unclear. Every now and then Stenson has a fit of pique. In the midst of his remarkable run last fall, he got so frustrated by a closing 74 in the BMW Championship at Conway Farms that he decapitated his driver and trashed his clubhouse locker. "I've always been a bit cheeky," he says, cheekily. "Sometimes, when my head gets rocky, my patience gets thin."

He laughs.

"Sometimes I have to let the steam out."

He laughs louder.

"Sometimes it happens that a clubhead gets separated from its shaft."

He laughs louder still.

"I don't know if there was a bit of Spanish in the family line 15 generations back, but then even the Vikings occasionally blew a gasket. I've retired a few clubs in my time."

henrik stenson

shot at Doral in 2009. Photo: Matthew Harris

Lord says Stenson deploys playful sarcasm to keep calamity at bay. "Part of my job is to keep my man relaxed," says the caddie, who last year earned so much on Stenson's bag that he bought himself a Ferrari. "Certain players I've worked for have tended to sulk when they didn't play well. I'd have to jump-start conversations with them. Not Henrik. If he's down, he'll start the conversation himself with a one-liner."

Alfredsson, another extroverted Swede who sometimes danced around professional golf decorum, applauds Stenson's iconoclasm. "I especially like that he can make fun of himself and doesn't take himself so seriously, like so many pros," she says. "Henrik may not always look like he has a sense of humor, but just think of the shot he took from the mud."

Ah, yes, the underwear shot, which until his recent play is probably the moment Stenson was best known for. At the 2009 WGC-CA Championship at Doral, after hitting his ball into the edge of a water hazard on the third hole, Stenson stripped down to a golf glove and his Björn Borg briefs and exploded out of the muck with a sand wedge. "The day was hot and steamy and I wanted to avoid soiling my shoes and clothes," he (sort of) explains. "I figured I'd play just the way God created me."

It's an ominous afternoon at the Barsebäck G&CC in Skåne, where the teenage Stenson polished his game. The sky is an unrelenting gray and darkness is beginning to wrap itself around the majestic pines that speckle the Masters Course.

While dining in a second-floor conference room, Stenson looks out the window a lot. You learn to do that in Sweden after spending several months each year waiting for the sun to come up.

As a boy, Stenson did his waiting some 130 miles north in Gothenburg, the country's second-largest city and birthplace of boxer Ingemar Johansson, the first and only Swedish heavyweight champion (1959) and ex-champion (1960) of the world.

henrik stenson

Stenson's father is named Ingemar too. As head of the distribution department at Göteborgs-Posten (the Gothenburg Post), he oversaw the paper carriers. Henrik's mother, Mona, worked down the hall in the complaints department. "We never owned a dog, so I never got to use the Post for housebreaking," muses Stenson, whose first job was delivering the fruits of his parents' labors.

His most vivid childhood memory involves a first-grade "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" essay. He'd spent his vacation fishing with his uncle Charlie. While puttering around the North Sea, he wrote, they had hauled in cod after cod, mackerel after mackerel. True as this was, Henrik's teacher was dubious of the 6-year-old's angling prowess. Her patronizing note home began: "Your son has a lively imagination."

Young Henrik also had a lively sense of mischief. He breaks into raucous laughter at the memory of a prank he played on the middle-aged couple who lived next door. "Our neighbors had the same model of television as we did, and the same kind of remote control," he says. One night while husband and wife watched TV in their living room, Henrik and a classmate crouched beneath the window and, Stenson family remote in hand, fiddled with the volume and channels. "We did enough for the guy to go bananas," Henrik says. "He didn't quite throw his TV out the window, but things almost got to that point."

What strikes him today is how little time kids spend outdoors. "Now I drive through some neighborhoods and think, 'Did someone drop a nuclear bomb?' The kids stay inside their homes, gaming. Every sport has struggled to track youth."

henrik stenson

two children. Photo: Kyle Auclair

Growing up, Stenson excelled at soccer, badminton and street hockey. No one in his family played golf, but he got hooked at 12 when a friend took him to a driving range in nearby Halta. His dedication inspired the nickname En Till Hink (One More Bucket). Ingemar accompanied him to his second lesson at Gullbringa G&CC. The pro said he was impressed that the boy was hitting such straight shots, which prompted his puzzled dad to ask, "Isn't that the whole point of the game?"

It is, in a sense, and En Till Hink showed such promise that the Stensons moved to Skåne so that he could play the tougher courses of Barsebäck. "Henrik was not the easiest student," recalls former coach Anders Jansson. "He's a perfectionist who needs to have control of every aspect of the game. But as a coach you want that type of student. You know he can be something."

Stenson was a scratch player by 18. In 1996, when he was 20, he won an amateur tournament in France, the Peugeot Classic. The victory earned him a wild-card entry to the 1997 Spanish Open on the European Tour. (He missed the cut by a single shot.) In the summer of 1997, during the Swedish Junior Match Play, Stenson went on a fateful movie date with Emma Löfgren, a member of the golf team at the University of South Carolina. "Emma and I made each other a promise," Stenson cracks. "If we didn't find anyone else in 10 years, we'd get married." They didn't, and wed in 2006, a year ahead of schedule. The couple has two young children, Lisa and Karl.

Emma is not only her husband's partner for life, but at times his partner in crime. During a tour stop in Switzerland a few years back, they conspired to scare the snor out of Carl Pettersson and Olle Karlsson, friends and fellow Swedes who were staying in the next hotel room. Wearing a hoodie drawn tight around his face, Henrik hopped from his balcony to theirs, opened the sliding glass door and hid behind the curtain. At an appropriate -- or inappropriate -- moment, he jumped out and screamed, "Just give me the money!"

The Swiss Caper, as one pal calls it, might not even make Henrik's highlight reel. "That's what my husband does," says Emma with a small shrug. "There's never a dull moment. You never know what's going to happen."

Stenson turned pro at 22 and joined the PGA Tour in 2007. Twice he has played for Europe's Ryder Cup team, most memorably in 2006 when he holed the winning putt at The K Club in Ireland, beating Vaughn Taylor, 4 and 3, as Ian Woosnam's squad sealed an 18.5-9.5 rout.

Five years earlier The K Club had been the scene of Stenson's first career meltdown. Having just won the Benson & Hedges International at The Belfry, the European Tour rookie tried to build on his first victory by tweaking his fundamentals. "I'm a perfectionist, which is both a blessing and a curse," he says. "If you're not careful, it's a trait that can get in the way of your performance. It can be counterproductive to give 100 percent effort when 75 will do."

That's the wrong kind of perfectionism, and it led, as it usually does, to disaster. Playing with Sandy Lyle and Miguel Angel Jiménez at the European Open, he needed three tee shots -- all with a 3-wood -- on his first hole before he could put one in play. It only got worse from there, and after nine holes Stenson dropped his sticks and walked in. "I told Sandy and Miguel they'd be better off without me," Stenson remembers. "It was 'Hasta la vista, baby' and off to the airport."

henrik stenson

early 2012, Stenson was back near the top of the game

after East Lake. Photo: Charles Laberge

Sport psychologist Torsten Hansson sums up Stenson's subsequent Terminator Period by saying, "For a long while, Henrik couldn't hit the fairway, he couldn't hit the golf course, he couldn't hit the planet." It took almost two years working with Hansson and Cowen -- in part, by hitting long irons with his eyes closed -- for the curve to lurch upward. "My game went to shambles, and I had to reconstruct it," Stenson says, "but that's the stuff that tests your will to come back."

His will was tested a second time in 2009 after Stanford Financial went bust; the following year he contracted viral pneumonia and a debilitating stomach bug. "Henrik's first slump started with technical faults and became mental," says Cowen. "The second was basically all physical." Chronically fatigued, Stenson -- lean to begin with -- dropped 15 pounds. "He lost almost all his muscle tone," Cowen says. "He looked like a little boy more than a big, strong fully-grown man. He couldn't train, and he couldn't practice."

Stenson's weakened state screwed up his mechanics. "He was moving the mass of his body as opposed to using his muscles to move that mass," says Cowen, who compares him to a prizefighter throwing punches in a clinch. "Yes, you can move your mass, but you can't create any speed and your muscles don't work properly."

The "raising of the dead" is what Cowen calls Reboot No. 2. Until Stenson's health improved, no substantive changes could be made in his swing. "His mind was scrambled," says Cowen. "He was trying to do all sorts of things, none of them productive." Team Stenson tried to use "quick fixes" to get him through. Remade and remodeled, Stenson began to get back into the swing of things in the summer of 2012. Cowen, thrilled, says: "You can see how much control he has 'in the ground.' When you have that, you can control what is above it. If you see his feet moving off the ground more than they should, he has lost control. It's as simple as that, really. All great players can hold their finishes forever when they are well balanced."

Some great players are impressed by Stenson's 13-year balancing act. "His first tumble was quite severe, and golfers usually don't recover from a fall like that," says countryman Jesper Parnevik. "To get his game back was very impressive, and to do it twice was, well, mind-boggling. I don't know that the general public appreciates Henrik's achievement."

Nor may the Swedish sporting press. Last December Stenson was bypassed for the Bragdguldet, a gold medal that the Stockholm daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet awards for the year's most significant Swedish sporting achievement. The honor went to cross-country skier Johan Olsson, winner of the individual 50-kilometer classic at the 2013 Nordic World Championships. "What Johan did was fantastic," Stenson says in the skier's defense. "He attacked early, pulled away from the pack after 20 kilometers and led for the last 30."

Not long after the announcement, Stenson got what amounted to the last laugh at the Nordea Tour's annual awards dinner in Stockholm. Before ending the night with an impromptu boogie to "I Will Survive" (stealing, in order: a feather boa from one of the professional entertainers on stage, and then, ultimately, the show), he accepted Sweden's Golfer of the Year honors -- the Silverbollen (silver ball) and a cash award. At the podium, Stenson said that he would donate the prize money to the Swedish Ski Association.

"So it can continue to produce great athletes," he explained, with an impish twinkle.