The Strange Case of Mr. Stenson
By Conor Nagle under European PGA Tour

Henrik Stenson: MIA

A few weeks ago I toyed with the idea of writing a post on a young Spanish golfer by the name of Pablo Martin. Though still in his early twenties, Martin has  managed to win three times on the European Tour in the last four seasons, his first victory coming as an amateur at the Estoril Open de Portugal in 2007.

Though his win-rate is exceptional is its own right, it becomes downright miraculous when viewed in the context of his overall record. Over the course of his brief career, Martin has played in 100 European Tour events, making the cut in 46 (you don’t need to be a statistical whizz to translate that into a rather unimpressive percentile) and finishing in the top-ten (wins included) a total of  6 times. His average tournament finish is 70th.

For a couple of weeks every year Pablo Martin is a world class golfer; the rest of the season, he’s just a guy wandering from missed cut to missed cut. How, I wondered, does he manage to keep it together in the face of week-to-week frustration, knowing that he possesses all the attributes necessary to win, and win regularly?

Martin has, against all odds, struck up a truce with the unruliness of his talent. The two have learned to coexist. The same can sort-of be said of Henrik Stenson, a man whose career has been defined by the freakish unpredictability of his game.

My overriding memory of Stenson is from range of The European Open in 2003. Since bursting onto the scene at the Benson & Hedges International Open a couple of years earlier, he’d struggled to adapt his mechanics to match the demands of competition at the highest level. Mired a lengthy, highly technical re-write of a lifetime’s muscle memory, Stenson had just carded a first round 81 and retreated to a quiet corner of the range.

After a couple of minutes of watching him hit mid-irons to a distant target it became clear that he had little or no idea what he was doing. A huge slice was followed by a couple of duck hooks, a near-skull by the sandy puff of something unforgiveably heavy. All the while Stenson was completely impassive, ipod buds (very trendy at the time) bobbing around him.

He recovered, of course, to claim his status as one of Europe’s most promising and dynamic young golfers, but it seems that technical confusion has once again returned to dog his game. Last week’s performance at the Qatar Masters, where his second round yo-yoed obscenely between a front-nine 31 and a back-nine 42 (capped off with a quadruple-bogey on his final hole and a wedge sent arcing into a nearby lake) was an exclamation point at the end of a year-long struggle to find a sliver of the kind of consistency that saw him rise to the top-five in the world rankings and win the 2009 Players’ Championship.

Stenson has always struggled to impose a shape on his natural ability. And while it was a battle he seemed to be winning (if at times only barely) for much of the middle part of the last decade, the scales seem to have once again been tipped in favour of the habits of old. Here’s hoping he recovers his bearings sooner rather than later.