News & Opinion

Stenson adds wit, wisdom for Europe

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Holing the winning putt at a Ryder Cup might not lift a golfer to the level of winning a major championship, but it certainly is an accomplishment that will earn a man a few free pints in worldwide pubs across his lifetime.

Few golf observers likely recall that Henrik Stenson, then a 30-year-old Ryder Cup rookie, holed the winning putt for Europe at Ireland’s K Club in 2006. Europe was winning in a breezy walk, and the stars seemed to be aligning perfectly that day to cast Northern Ireland’s own Darren Clarke – who was competing shortly after losing his wife, Heather, to cancer – to be the man to clinch the cup.

Alas, Stenson finished off American Vaughn Taylor on the 15th green just moments before Clarke would beat Zach Johnson on the green ahead. So, Stenson, not Clarke, was the guy. Because the match finished Europe 18½, U.S. 9½, not many remember. A reporter at the 42nd Ryder Cup in France on Thursday even asked Stenson if there remains some debate as to who actually earned the clinching point that year.

Henrik Stenson comes full circle at Le Golf National, the site of his debut on the European Tour 22 years ago.

“No, I holed the winning putt. There’s no debate,” shot back the witty Stenson as a room filled with writers broke out in laughter. The Swede would add, “If there's anyone with other information, I'll meet you behind the media center later on and we'll iron these things out.”

Stenson is anything but a robotic and stoic Swede. He’s a funny man, always quick with a razor-sharp quip to lighten a moment. There’s nothing funny about his golf, though. The 2016 British Open champion has serious game. He’s an exceptional ball-striker who has held his own against the world’s best for years, playing away from his driver by banging 3-woods out there next to the game’s top bombers.

Stenson embodies a good deal of what we will see beginning in today’s wee hours at these 42nd Ryder Cup matches. He doesn’t possess the flash of so many U.S. players. He is not considered a huge global star, as are teammates Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy. He simply is an underrated and rock-solid performer who gets his work done and can take down any competitor across from him.

Don’t sleep on Europe these next few days, and don’t sleep on Stenson. The U.S. enters the matches arguably hotter, and more highly ranked. The Americans have fixed the lack-of-communication problem that existed four years ago, and won three straight team cups (two Presidents, one Ryder). The team has two 2018 major winners (Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka, who won two), the world No. 1 player (Dustin Johnson), and some guy named Tiger Woods is coming off his first victory in five years.

But there’s a reason why Europe has been able to put its head down and prevail over Uncle Sam’s boys here on home soil for 25 years. Twenty-five years! Europe fills its roster with lunch-pail guys such as Stenson.

European captain Thomas Bjorn, who has a beautiful way with words, describes Stenson as a man “who doesn’t take up a lot of space in the team room.” Bjorn explained that Stenson, though a team leader, goes about things in a different and quieter manner. Instead of being a highly vocal presence needing to be in front of the team, he’s more of the type who will take a younger player aside, one on one, to offer some sage advice.

As for his presence, Stenson walks very tall among his 11 European teammates.

“He’s done great things in the game,” Bjorn said. “These new guys look up to him. They know what he stands for.”

Stenson, now 42, has had an odd season. He was slowed by a rib injury late last year that cost him some starts, and then injured his left elbow in the summer performing, of all things, cleaning duties in his garage at home in Orlando, Fla. He showed good form in a couple of big events – a tie for fifth at the Masters and a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open – but hasn’t won in more than a year. That’s partly why this week is so significant.

At one point in late summer, being the team guy that he is, Stenson shifted his focus from his individual play to making sure he’d be practicing and ready for Le Golf National and the Ryder Cup. Bjorn used one of his captain’s pick on him, which surprised no one.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that that was a player I wanted here,” Bjorn said.

Stenson and fellow captain’s pick Sergio Garcia will have to hope that the extra adrenaline of this event can help them find form that’s been absent. Both will sit out the first session (pairings). Stenson is expected to get a game or two with old pal Justin Rose (they won their first three matches together at Gleneagles four years ago), and from there, he’ll see. During the last Ryder Cup, a 17-11 U.S. victory at Hazeltine National in Minnesota, Stenson was asked to play all five matches. This team is deeper in talent.

Le Golf brings Stenson full circle in some ways. This is where, as a 20-year-old, he played his first European Tour event, showing up at the French Open in 1996. He missed the cut.

“I won the Peugeot Amateur Classic, and they were sponsoring the French Open, and so I got an invite to play there,” Stenson said. “So, I did my debut on the European Tour at Le Golf National, with my dad, Ingemar, on the bag.”

Can you just imagine the dreams that Stenson had back then? Who would have thought he’d be back, all these years later, having secured his place in history in this game by getting his name on the Open’s Claret Jug? He looks at the advances in the Ryder Cup just in the time he has played in it – 2006-2018 – and with 6,000 fans in grandstands around that first tee, wonders where the future will take it.

“I don’t know, might be at least another 20 years before we’ve got floating stands in the sky or something,” he said jokingly.

He knows, just as Bjorn does, that Europe is the underdog. That’s perfect. Just as the team prefers it.

“Probably on paper, we are,” Bjorn said. “But we still believe that we can win. We still believe that we can go out and do a job on the golf course.”

Mainly, because he has players on his team who have done it before. For Stenson, and for Europe, it’s all about the team. Always. It’s a formula that has worked quite well. Europe has won eight of the past 10 of the biennial matches, cutting the U.S. series lead to 26-13-2.

Truth be told, as long as Europe can be a winner this week, Stenson said he couldn’t care less who holes the clinching putt.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62