One in a series of previews for the April 6-9 Masters
AUSTIN, Texas – Admit it. You didn't have Sweden's Alex Noren making the quarterfinals of the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play in your bracket, ousting Brooks Koepka in the Sweet 16 and scaring eventual champion Dustin Johnson before bowing out, 3 and 2. It's OK. You're not alone. Noren, 34, is the current titleholder of a distinction I like to call the highest-ranked player in the Official World Golf Ranking whom nobody knows.
"Yeah," he said when I mentioned this to him, "you're probably right."
He's No. 10 in the world, and yet you probably couldn't pick him out of a police lineup. The list ahead of him is a roll call of single-name (or initials) stars: D.J., Rory, JDay, Hideki, Henrik, Jordan, Adam, J.T., Rickie.
Noren, who turned pro in 2005, is a late bloomer who turned heads with four European Tour victories in a five-month span, most recently in November at the Nedbank Golf Challenge. He had won before – eight times in all now – but never in bunches.
In Europe, Noren is renowned for his work ethic. He's first at the range and last to leave, with the calluses to prove it. In 2014, he hit so many balls that he developed tendinitis in both wrists and played only twice that year.
"I don't think anyone works harder than him," Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen said. "He's always full of energy. He's like one of those rabbits with a battery up his ass."
Noren was the type of golfer consumed with the game, and he became fixated on the perfect swing. The birth of his daughter, Iris, last year changed his outlook. "Fatherhood gave me something extra in life," he said.
He no longer could spend every waking hour on golf, and he became more focused on the golf course. He won the Scottish Open in July, the European Masters in September, the British Masters in October and the Nedbank Golf Challenge in November.
At the Nedbank in South Africa, a third-round 75 dropped him six strokes off the pace. He went back to his room and worked on his swing mechanics for two hours that night. The next day, he was a different man, shooting 63 to rally for the victory. "I holed the most putts I'd ever seen," Noren said.
With his position inside the OWGR’s top 50 cemented for some time, Noren has gained admission to a new world of exempt status at majors and World Golf Championships. This marks Noren's first trip to the Masters.
"I like his chances at the U.S. Open more than Augusta," fellow Swede Henrik Stenson said. "I guess he can prove me wrong on that one now."
Noren's track record at the majors is spotty: a T-9 at the 2012 British Open is his best finish in 14 appearances. For a European who played college golf in the U.S. at Oklahoma State (his teammates included Hunter Mahan and Pablo Martin), Noren has posted an abysmal record on this side of the Atlantic. Until the WGC Match Play, he had zero top-10s in 17 U.S. starts.
"It's very different playing some of the courses over here," he said, noting the importance of finding the fairway off the tee. "I want to have a strong tee-to-green game, and when I do have a strong tee-to-green game I usually play pretty good."
To enhance his chances for improvement, Noren rented a place in Jupiter, Fla., this winter. For the third straight year, he practiced at The Bear’s Club, often playing practice rounds with Rory McIlroy and gleaning insights from none other than Jack Nicklaus. Noren has developed a dependable cut, but it is still his putting that competitors rave about. Stenson, who played alongside Noren when he won in South Africa, offered high praise.
"I played with Jordan Spieth when he won the Masters in 2015, and it was a similar display from Alex," Stenson said. "He can really roll his ball."
There's no better place for a pro to become a household name than on the greens of Augusta National.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak