HOYLAKE, England — Lest we forget, only seven years have passed since Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson put on a show for the ages during the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon. Stenson finished first, of course, setting a record score along the way, numbers—264 and 20 under par for 72 holes—that have still to be beaten in golf’s oldest major.
And yet. Things having changed markedly since Stenson wrote the first paragraph of his obituary by beating Mickelson in what many still see as the most dramatic climax to any Open. Today, the 47-year-old Swede is spending most of his time on the LIV Golf League, having resigned both the captaincy of this year’s European Ryder Cup team and, subsequently, his membership of the DP World Tour. Given recent events on the diplomatic front, those unfortunate eventualities may be reversed sometime soon, but for now Stenson is something of a forgotten man at this Open. Which is a shame at an event where his past play clearly merits high-profile recognition.
Then again, he hasn’t disappeared from memory completely. During this week’s practice rounds at Royal Liverpool, Stenson, who finished 48th and 39th in his two previous visits to the Hoylake links, has been treated to the occasional sight of his name and face popping up on the big screens around the place. Understandably, he is heartened by the knowledge that he is forever part of the championship he grew up most wanting to win.
“I hear every other day from someone saying 2016 was the greatest final round they’ve ever seen,” says Stenson, who is one of 16 LIV players in the field at Royal Liverpool. “That day is certainly the icing on my career cake. Winning in that fashion was amazing. I’d have taken a 71 that morning (he closed with a 63) if that had been enough to seal the deal. But it was arguably the best golf I’ve ever played and on the biggest stage. Phil and I just seemed to make each there better and better.”
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Stenson notes that the timing of the win in his career made the achievement even more impactful. “There are many ways to win a major,” he said. “I was 40 and had a few good finishes. Once or twice it could have gone my way, but I had never had a great chance. I certainly wasn’t carrying any scars from not winning a major. But that was my week and my time. I’ll always be the first male Swede, and Scandinavian, to win a [men’s] major. It was always going to be hard to follow that. But even now my body feels pretty good. The game is trending. I’ve done some pretty good work with my team. And I’ve had a couple of strong performances on LIV recently. All in all, I feel competitive.”
While becoming the “champion golfer of the year” is clearly the highlight of Stenson’s profession life, it is worth remembering just how good he once was. World Match play champion in 2007 and the Players champion two years later, the Gothenburg-native was the No. 1 player on both the European and PGA Tours in 2013. Still, his Open victory turned out to be his last on his home circuit. So was the time of his (working) life a factor in his decision to make the jump to LIV?
“Part of my reason to go to LIV was to have a longer off-season,” he admits. “I wanted to be at home more. Now I’m there for three months, which is great.”
Ah, but mention of LIV does allow Stenson to share some of the irritation he has felt in the wake of his decision to join the Saudi-backed circuit.
“If you are a world-class player and you decide to join LIV in, say, October, you are not going to be hopeless in April,” he contends. “You don’t forget how to play golf. I’ve heard so many different narratives though. People were saying that Brooks could only play 54 holes when he didn’t win at Augusta. But Phil shot 65 in the final round there. You can’t have it both ways. I know some did, but I never doubted it. I knew I wasn’t going to care less just because there I knew I would get a check at the end of every event.”
Money, Stenson acknowledges, also played a role in his decision to join LIV. “My decision was based on the financial aspect, of course,” he said. “Then there was my age. I’m 47. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll play. That will depend on my health and level of motivation. If I had been 26, I maybe would have been thinking differently. I’m just sad it all ended up where it did. I wish we could have been where we are now right at the start. I wish the people in charge could have looked at it differently.”
OK, let’s look forward rather than back. How should players like Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and himself be allowed back into what might be termed golf’s establishment should the deal between the PGA Tour, the Saudi PIF and the DP World Tour become official?
“I do think the rules on membership have to be applied in the same way for everyone,” says Stenson, who has at least one top-five finish in all four majors. “Those rules have been changed a little at the instigation of some players. But there needs to be a clear line for all concerned. I’m not sure how it will all work out; that’s beyond my pay grade. But I hope we can get back to something like normal. I hope that those who have left membership can still play a role. That can only be good for the tours. I’m too tired to guess exactly what is going to happen though. There are so many different ways to make it all work.”
And the captaincy he lost in such controversial fashion? Does Stenson see a way back into the role in, say, 2025? Or is there still too much bad feeling among those who feel he let them down when, after accepting the non-playing role for this year’s matches in Italy, he abandoned the DP World ship? Not surprisingly, Stenson is reluctant to touch such a touchy subject.
“The captaincy is part of a bigger picture and what eventually gets decided,” he says. “I have heard some people arguing that the reason for me losing it has gone. And I’ve heard others say I should never be captain. I’ll cross that bridge if it ever comes up, if and when the question does arise.”
But if it is offered would he accept?
“I’ll cross that bridge if it ever comes up, if and when the question does arise.” Cue a big smile.
Jared C. Tilton
Indeed, Stenson seems happy with his lot, even as he waits to see what transpires on multiple fronts.
“I like having a proper off-season,” he says. “I can rest and re-charge and work with my team. That has helped me this season. I’ve been more energized this year. And I don’t have to plan my schedule anymore. I was able to pick and choose before. Now though, I know exactly where I am going to be and when I’m going to be there. Planning is easy, even down to knowing my tee-times a week in advance. I’ve enjoyed too, the travelling with the boys on LIV. It’s been fun.
“When I say things like I’m always wary of being misunderstood,” he continues. “Saying how much I enjoy LIV Golf doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what I had on the European Tour or the PGA Tour. All I’m saying is that, after 25 years, it is fun to experience something new. There are plusses and minuses in everything, but overall I’m enjoying the new chapter in my life. Especially now that everything looks better than it did six weeks ago.”
Maybe not better than seven years ago though. For Stenson, nothing is ever going to beat Troon 2016.
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Is it the British Open or the Open Championship? The name of the final men’s major of the golf season is a subject of continued discussion. The event’s official name, as explained in this op-ed by former R&A chairman Ian Pattinson, is the Open Championship. But since many United States golf fans continue to refer to it as the British Open, and search news around the event accordingly, Golf Digest continues to utilize both names in its coverage.
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