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Strong fields bring out Stenson's best

Sunday, April 01, 2007

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He might not be a household name in America, but Henrik Stenson is a very big deal in Swedish golf these days.

Henrik Stenson comes into the Masters having defeated strong international fields in two tournaments earlier this year. The Swede also has the power game to contend in Augusta. (Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

Sweden is home to top female golfer Annika Sorenstam but has yet to deliver a major men's champion. Since Stenson backed up a Ryder Cup-clinching performance last fall with consecutive victories over world-class fields in Dubai and the WGC-Match Play in February, he's grown into a new Swedish golf icon.

"I don't think I'm going to have to walk," he said jokingly of the reaction he'll get next time he goes home. "They will probably carry me around. A little crown on my head."

If golf fans haven't taken notice, his peers certainly have. Stenson has a big game, as he showed in outlasting Tiger Woods and Ernie Els at the Dubai Desert Classic and then outdueling defending match play and reigning U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy in Tucson, Ariz.

"He can win anything he wants," Ogilvy said. "He hits it long. He chips and putts pretty well. He's not afraid to win golf tournaments. I can't see any tournament he couldn't win, really."

Jesper Parnevik, the player who first drove Sweden to prominence on the PGA Tour and Ryder Cup, sees Stenson as the player who can take it a step further in the majors.

"He is probably the first Swede that actually can say (he) has a big power game," Parnevik said. "Most of the Swedes have been more finesse type of players. So he is the first one that actually bombs it, I would say. We've had a few players in the past, but not like this guy. And he seems to have a very good putting game. So Augusta should suit him perfectly, I would think, with that game. And with the confidence he is having right now, I'm sure he is going in there thinking he can win."

Stenson is trying not to get ahead of himself. He missed the cut in his Masters debut last year and never finished better than 14th (2006 PGA) in seven career major starts.

"If I can play well and put myself in that situation, I hope I can take the chance," he said of a major shot. "That's what it's all about, creating the chances. I haven't been top 10 in a major yet, so you know, I like to take things step-by-step. I think that, especially for Augusta, if I can play pretty good and make it to the top 10, I think I'll be pretty satisfied when the week is over playing only my second Masters.

"Not saying that if Sunday comes and I'm in a good position, I'm not going to try and take it. I know I can shoot some good numbers, and I've proven that I can win some pretty big golf tournaments."

Stenson has worked hard to get where he is in the game. A tireless range rat as a junior, he seemed on the brink of stardom six years ago when he won for the first time on the European Tour as a rookie. A few weeks later, Stenson lost his swing so badly he walked off the course in the Smurfit European Open at the K Club.

"I don't consider myself as a quitter," he said. "So, you know, when things are really bad, you don't want to leave it when it's bad."

Instead, Stenson rebuilt his swing with instructor Pete Cowen, who says that his pupil was having trouble "hitting the world." Cowen called it the "hardest thing I've done as a teacher."

Stenson is back and better than ever. Working with psychologist Torsten Hansson, who trained as a U.S. Navy SEAL, Stenson has developed a mental strength that Hansson believes "can make him the best (golfer) in the world."

And after missing the cut at last year's Masters, Stenson called caddie Fanny Sunesson out of retirement. Sunesson, also from Sweden, won four majors, including two Masters, while carrying Nick Faldo's bag.

Stenson has some familiarity with Augusta. He spent a few years just up the road in Columbia when his girlfriend, Emma Lofgren (whom he married in December and who is expecting a baby this summer) was playing on the University of South Carolina women's golf team. Stenson practiced so regularly with the Gamecocks men's team that head coach Puggy Blackmon tried to get him to join the program.

"I was just in it for the golf," Stenson said. "I didn't have to go to classes."

In 1999, Stenson came to Augusta for the Tuesday practice round of the Masters and was mesmerized watching Jose Maria Olazabal practice his short game.

"I thought he looked so good, I should put some money on him," Stenson said.

He forgot to get a bet down in time, and Olazabal went on to win his second Masters.

Now it might not be a bad idea to put a few krona on Stenson. With a quality team behind him and a power game at his disposal, he might have what it takes to end the European drought in majors dating back to Paul Lawrie at the British Open in 1999.

"It's been a lot of sleepless nights; I'm crying myself to sleep," Stenson said sarcastically of the European dry spell.

Having beaten Ogilvy, Els and Woods already this season, it might be Stenson's time.

"Most of the tournaments I've won, there's been good fields, and I think I always tend to raise my game a little bit when I play with the best in the world," he said. "So that's always been triggering me to bring that little extra out of my game."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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