Henrik Stenson had an incredible year in 2013, winning both the Tour Championship and the FedExCup and the European Tour’s Race to Dubai. What more could he have done? I suppose he could have made the cut in the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens back in March or the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte in May. But in the end, nice as it would have been not to have missed a cut all year long, it didn’t matter.
Stenson is a very smart guy with a wry sense of humor. Three years ago when he came into the 2011 Accenture Match Play Championship at the Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Tucson, he was struggling. He had won the 2009 Players Championship and was playing out the last half of his 5-year exemption. For as good as he was, his riches-to-rags arc was dismaying. So I asked him about it intending good humor, but a little inartfully, “What happened to you?”
To which he responded, smiling, “Oh, thanks a lot.”
And then he settled into a serious, thoughtful discussion of his injury-riddled couple of years that caused him to make compensations in his swing. But that created more problems than it solved. He went on to lose to Lee Westwood 3&2 in the first round eventually falling so far in the world rankings he didn’t make in back in 2012.
But what a difference two years of good health makes. He describes the mad dash to the end of his spectacular 2013 year:
Yeah, it was busy. The success we had last year has kind of got some attention. It’s been a busy couple of weeks. It was busy since I arrived in Sweden. I played quite late. I played up until the 15th of December, playing in Thailand. Got back, had a crazy busy week the first week in Sweden. A little bit calmer over Christmas and New Year’s, whenever everyone else packs away their things.
And then busy again starting up in Sweden and back to Dubai to practice, back to Sweden for sports award, landed Tuesday night in Abu Dhabi, and I wasn’t quite ready to go at that point. And yeah, just trying to get my game going again. And felt like I moved in the right direction during those few weeks, even though I didn’t play my best. Had a couple of weeks to practice and it feels like it’s getting there.
Asked about how he felt coming into the week, he went on to describe the tenuous nature of a match play event at their level:
[Match play] is different, because in stroke play you can shoot 70 the first round. And then take Bubba, for instance, last week [at Riviera], shooting two great numbers on the weekend to win the tournament. If it’s this week, he probably wouldn’t have the chance to shoot those 64s on the weekend because he would have been knocked out in one of the first rounds. So that’s just the way it is with match play and that competition.
We know you can shoot 64 and someone else shoot 63 and you’re going home. You can shoot 74 and you still squeeze by because the other guy is having a worse day than you are having. That’s what I meant with the luck. You’ve got to be able to squeeze by on the matches when you’re not playing that well. Hopefully you’ll win the ones where you’re playing well. It’s all about timing in that sense.
So that created an opportunity for me to ask him about how he’s going to get it geared back up after such a spectacular year and he made a very insightful comment about the difference between swinging and hunting and pecking. It was the equivalent of the old “chicken or the egg,” conundrum:
Q. Can you describe the process of getting your swing tuned back up? You said you felt like you were close. How do you gauge that you’re close?
I think I just felt like I was maybe fishing around for feelings a little bit too much when I started the season. You’re coming off a good year and you remember how it felt when you were hitting good shots. And then I wasn’t quite hitting them as good when I started in the Middle East.
And then it’s easy to get tricked into looking for the feelings again instead of just looking, okay, what’s the basics and do some solid work and then you will get the good feelings. And I can kind of feel — I can see on the ball flight and I feel it when I do it the right way.
So it’s getting there. Got more pressure [compression] on the ball again. If it looks like golf and sounds like golf, you’re normally pretty close [there’s that humor].
And then someone else asked the logical extension of my question:
Q. When you get to a stage that you reached, say, last summer and played at such a high level what’s the hardest part of staying at that high level for long periods of time?
Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s one I won’t pass on. Thank you. [Others had been hammering him to make a suggestion on a better format for the tournament, something he’d said earlier, in so many words, was pointless. He passed.] I think it’s very — I think it’s very hard to play at that level, of course, for such a long time and that’s — I’m not sure surprised me is the right word, but I probably impressed myself that I managed to keep on going at such a high level for such a long time.
I think the two biggest challenges for me is — of course, expectations is going to be one, but then also to have the time and peace to continue to work on my game the same way I did before I had this success is also a challenge. Because it’s more media requests, it’s more things to do off the golf course, more sponsor commitments and everything else that kind of takes away energy and rest and focus on my game.
So that’s just something I have to try and deal with and become better at now that I was ranked highly — I was between 5 and 15 for about three years, but I’ve never been as busy as I have been now in the last six months off the golf course. It has been a different level of busyness off the course.
That’s something I will have to deal with and plan my time wisely and make sure I can still get my practice in. If you’re not spending enough time on that, you won’t be able to play as well. And it’s going to be hard enough to get near that run that I had last year, even if I spend 100 percent on my golf game. Those are the two biggest challenges that I see.
And then we know it’s never going to be a straight line like this. I mean, it’s going to be ups and downs. But given the ups and downs I have had in the past, it’s not like I’m getting worried if I’m not producing the results I want to in the early part of the season, either. I’ve got patience.
As I said, a very smart guy. Not to mention thoughtfully articulate and eager to share.