SOUTHPORT, England – Pete Cowen will explain that Henrik Stenson has three distinct swings – good, very good and excellent.
“Two of those [good and very good] he doesn’t like to accept,” Stenson’s longtime swing coach explained following the Swede’s victory last year at The Open.
Stenson is a perfectionist, driven to exceedingly high levels by the notion that mediocrity is not an option even though he’s playing a game that is often decided by the thin margins between good and great.
Last year Stenson was perfect, at least by any reasonable standard, on his way to his first major victory over Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon, where he closed with a 63 in what was among the greatest major championship duels.
He hit 11 of 14 fairways, 16 of 18 greens in regulation and needed just 27 putts, but even that performance comes with an asterisk when Stenson strolls down memory lane.
“It was certainly a standout in terms of how we played, but also how I putted that day,” he said. “If I would have hit the same amount of shots, but I wouldn't have rolled in as many putts from 10, 15 feet, obviously the score would have been a whole lot different.”
It’s not as though Stenson is naturally a negative person. It’s just his standards have always been set ridiculously high and that’s not always a good thing.
Following his tie for 26th last week at the Scottish Open, Stenson was downright dismissive of his chances of defending this week at Royal Birkdale.
“It's always that battle and I don't feel I have enough game to play the way I want to, and as soon as you go into practice mode you are losing the possibility to play your best,” he said on Sunday.
On Tuesday, his outlook was slightly more upbeat but was still a telling example of how hard the world’s eighth-ranked player can be on himself.
It’s been that kind of year for Stenson.
Outside of a runner-up finish to Sergio Garcia at the Dubai Desert Classic in February, he hasn’t contended and he begins this week after missing five of his last seven cuts on the PGA Tour, including missed weekends at the year’s first two majors.
The double-edged benefit of holding one’s self to such a high standard is that there’s no room for complacency, but there’s also precious little space for anything approaching a benefit of the doubt.
“Henrik is a perfectionist,” Cowen said. “Can you play at your best all the time? Who plays at their best all the time? The only person that I know that does that is Usain Bolt, that’s why he wins everything. Winning majors is not easy.”
For most players, winning a major at age 40 would have been a license to savor the fruits of decades of work. Henrik isn’t most players.
Getting on the Grand Slam board only spurred him to want to do it again, replacing the pressure to win his first major with an even higher standard of collecting more before his career is over.
“Once you win one, obviously that's off your shoulder,” he said. “And it's more about putting yourself in contention again and trying to win a second one. Given how long and successful a career I've had, I think that's pretty much what we're aiming for, a few more chances to win more major championships. That's really where that extra spark can come from.”
Predictably, Stenson has spent this week grinding on the practice tee with Cowen, but then he would be doing the same thing even if he’d won his last three starts. For Henrik, the struggle is real and the search never stops.
He can take some competitive solace from last year’s championship, when he admits he also wasn’t feeling great about his game. He can also take into account his history when he commits to a links fortnight.
Twice in the last four years he’s played the Scottish Open the week before The Open, in 2016 and ’13, when he finished first and second, respectively. In ’14 and ’15 when he skipped the Scottish he finished in the middle of the pack at The Open.
“For me it's crucial, both to play the week before the major is ideal for me, and also playing links because you just get in kind of that mindset of where you're going to land the ball and playing the three-quarter shots in the crosswinds,” he said.
Or, if Stenson is truly in need of a paradigm of hope heading into his 13th Open he can consider the finality that this week brings. Winning his first major brought a host of new media duties and unfamiliar attention, which only served to remind him of what he’s capable of doing if only he could perform at his absolute best week in and week out.
“I feel like it's a little bit easier to turn the page and look ahead, rather than speaking about what happened three, six, nine, 12 months ago all the time,” he admitted a day after handing the claret jug back to the R&A. “That's kind of where I feel I'm at.”