Here come the young guns

Brian Keogh in Tucson

Seven years after Darren Clarke became the first European to win a World Golf Championship event, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson announced the arrival of a new generation of stars with a hard-fought 2 and 1 win over Geoff Ogilvy in the Accenture Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain’s Gallery Golf Club in Tucson.

It wasn’t always pretty, but then it didn’t have to be as the 30-year-old from Gothenburg elbowed his way out of the shadows of stars such as Clarke, Lee Westwood, Colin Montgomerie or Thomas Bjorn to the forefront of the world stage.

In a week when Under 30s such as Justin Rose, Trevor Immelman and Paul Casey shone brightly in the desert sun, Stenson roared louder than all of them that he is not afraid to battle with Tiger Woods for golf’s major prizes.

“I think it might just be some guys out there not willing to accept that the younger generation is moving on,” Stenson replied when asked about the arrival of golf’s young guns. “I'm not saying it's the older players, but maybe some of your colleagues.”

Just over five months to the day after he holed what proved to be the winning putt in the Ryder Cup at the K Club, Stenson out-lasted the reigning world match play and US Open champion in a roller-coaster final to soar to a career high of fifth in the Official World Golf Rankings.

It was another milestone for the big-hitting Swede, who was at such a low ebb with his game in the 2001 European Open at the same Kildare venue that he walked off the course after just nine holes of his second round to avoid further embarrassment.

“I sort of lost the swing and then obviously lost the confidence, and one thing leads to another,” explained the Dubai resident after pocketing a mammoth cheque for $1.35 million. “The first couple of provisional golf balls don't bother you that much, but when your caddie is rattling in the pocket to see if he's got a provisional when you're standing over the drive, you know you've got some sort of a problem.”

Humour is now part and parcel of Stenson’s make up - once one of the more volatile and temperamental of players.
Things got so bad in 2002 that his mental coach Torsten Hansson, a former diver in the Swedish navy, explained that Stenson had developed such a choking problem with the long clubs that he had to play with his eyes closed so that he could focus on releasing the club properly.

A meeting with English coach Peter Cowen proved to be a turning point for the six foot one Swede, who has completely remodelled his swing.

"He didn't know how it worked," Cowen said. "It was like lifting the bonnet on a car and looking at the engine without really knowing what you're looking at. If you don't know, fiddling with the knobs is more than likely to make things worse rather than better.”

The rest is history, as they say, with Stenson now comfortably ensconced in the top ten in the world alongside the likes of Woods, Jim Furyk, Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh and Ogilvy.

And while he still has some way to go to outstrip the achievements of compatriot Annika Sorenstam, he believes he is now ready to take the next step and become the first Swede to win one of golf’s four major championships.

“Winning a World Golf Championships is as close to winning a major without doing it, I guess,” said Stenson, who saw off Els and Woods to win the Dubai Desert Classic on his previous start just three weeks ago. “It's two great tournaments I won just recently.

“I wouldn't mind being the first Swede to win a major championship. You know, that's the two childhood dreams that I had: Playing in the Ryder Cup and winning the British Open.

“But it's a tough one. We've got the world's best out there for the majors. We know a few of them sort of put in subscriptions on the tournaments, as well. It's not obviously big chances that you're going to win, but you can just try and put yourself into position coming Sunday, and if it's there, it's there.”

On the evidence of what he produced in Arizona, Stenson is more than capable of grasping what Jesper Parnevik twice caressed with his fingertips before seeing the big prize plucked away.