News & Opinion

Henrik Stenson reclaims magic in Saudi Arabia

Once-struggling Swede shoots 5-under 65 to trail co-leaders Gavin Green and Graeme McDowell by 1 stroke in the Saudi International

KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia – Showing some of his best golf in a few years, Henrik Stenson emerged as a factor with a first-round 5-under 65 at the European Tour’s Saudi International on Thursday.

Stenson stood one shot off the lead set by Malaysia’s Gavin Green and Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell. When asked to rank his round, the Swede joked that it’s his best round this year. He certainly was correct after two pedestrian finishes earlier this month: 23rd in the SMBC Singapore Open and T-37 in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

Saudi International 2020
Henrik Stenson tees off on the 17th hole Thursday during the 1st round of the Saudi International.

Since winning the 2016 British Open at Royal Troon, Stenson has won only the PGA Tour’s 2017 Wyndham Championship before last month’s unofficial victory at the 18-man Hero World Challenge. At Tiger Woods’ event in the Bahamas, Stenson rediscovered his game, hitting crisp iron shots and making up shots on the greens. Though it was an exhibition, the victory reminded Stenson about what it takes to win.

“Last year, I didn’t play good enough to put myself in contention,” said Stenson, 43, a perennial top-10-ranked player in the world in 2013-18 who entered this week at No. 27.

Even in winning last month, Stenson didn’t play his best golf. Borrowing from the five-star rating system, with five being the best, he rated his play at a 3½, perhaps 4, at best.

Regardless, the victory put Stenson in a better mental state before he stored his clubs for 3½ weeks and took a family vacation on a road trip with another family to California.

“We went on this Griswolds’ American road trip,” said Stenson, referring to the 1983 comedy “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” starring Chevy Chase. “So, we flew into San Francisco and spent three days there visiting Alcatraz, riding cable cars and just hanging out.”

The best part of the trip, Stenson said, was the drive: a 40-foot RV with slide-outs to accommodate the entourage.

“Got an hour-and-a-half tour how to operate the RV and then a 10-minute talk on how to drive this great thing,” Stenson said. “One pizza after lunch and I am driving over the Golden Gate Bridge with about 6 inches on either side,” he said, laughing. “I was certainly switched on at that moment.”

Stenson reveled in the “switched on” comment, in response to a question about his desire to win in golf. Those closest to him know that he is among the game’s elite players when he is engaged. When he isn’t, well, his results show it.

“I’ve always been driven by when I have something, I’m chasing I tend to really work hard to try to get it,” Stenson said.

This is a big year for Stenson, who is aiming for a return to the Olympics. He won the silver medal as runner-up to England’s Justin Rose at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

Yet, his first-round score here still was not what he would call ideal as Stenson struggled at times but saved himself with the putter.

“It was a lot of fighting and a lot of scrambling and some really good two-putts and chip shots around the greens,” Stenson said of a round that included six birdies and one bogey. “Probably the scorecard is a little tidier than I feel I played out there today.”

With the winds usually coming up in the afternoon from the west off the adjacent Red Sea, Stenson will have to follow up his solid opening round under anticipated challenging conditions later in the day Friday in the second round.

“There's a big difference compared to playing in the morning, so you really want to try and make extra, extra birdies as a cushion,” Stenson said. “It's going to be a tougher round of golf tomorrow than this one, for sure.”

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