RIO DE JANEIRO – Henrik Stenson didn’t play handball growing up, instead focusing his youthful attention on the likes of soccer, golf, badminton and bandy, which the Swede described as “like soccer with skates;” but he certainly appreciates the athletic poetry of the sport.
“My dad played a lot of handball, so that's why I'm very familiar with that game,” he said.
All of which also made him appreciate when the Swedish men’s handball team showed up for Round 2 at the Olympic Golf Course fresh off their loss to Slovenia on Thursday night in group play.
Stenson arrived early in Rio to walk in the Opening Ceremony and watch his beloved Swedish handball team before getting back to the day job of winning a golf tournament.
“I’ve been watching them, it’s only fair they repay the favor,” Stenson smiled.
In retrospect, the Swedish handball players might have been in the gallery for more than just moral support considering Stenson’s play for two days at the Olympics.
The favorite for this week’s gold medal has lived up to that billing in Rio, opening his week with a 66 and enduring the worst of Friday’s weather for a 3-under 68 that left him two strokes off the lead held by Australia's Marcus Fraser.
For a player who had a reputation for being his own worst enemy at times on the golf course, Stenson has emerged over the last few weeks as a bona fide closer.
Flawless and fierce last month at Royal Troon, he answered every challenge Phil Mickelson could muster when he closed with a 63 for a three-stroke margin and his first major victory.
But if you’re counting style points, a gold medal this week for Stenson may be even more impressive than what he accomplished at The Open.
On Wednesday in Rio the normally personable Stenson had a rare edge to him, snapping at reporters after a barrage of questions about the new Olympic golf course and the collection of high-profile players who didn’t make the trip to Brazil. “Is anyone going to ask about my game?”
But if Stenson’s temperament seemed sharper than normal he’d come by it honestly considering he essentially went straight from The Open to the PGA Championship, where he tied for seventh, before making the trip to Rio.
On Wednesday he admitted to being worn down by the intensity of the last few weeks and employing an economy of energy to prepare for this week’s event.
Although Stenson has a history of making the most of a hot hand like he did in 2013 when he won two playoff events to claim the FedEx Cup and then the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, this time feels different. This time somehow feels more sustainable, more substantial.
There is a calm to Stenson this week that belies the importance of winning a gold medal that in no way is a reflection of how the 40-year-old feels about golf’s return to the Olympics.
Unlike many of the game’s other top players Stenson never wavered in his support of playing the Olympics, telling anyone who would ask he would value a gold medal just behind a major in importance. Yet he set out this week with a conviction that justified his status as the favorite.
“I saw the remarks that some guys were more nervous walking here. I actually felt kind of opposite,” he said following Round 2. “I don't know if it was because I was pretty clear on my game and what I was going to do. I felt less butterflies walking to the tee box than at some other events.”
That calm was tested early on Friday when a cold rain and heavy wind greeted the early starters. Stenson estimated he played the course’s toughest holes in the worst conditions and after birdies at Nos. 1 and 2, he made a mess of the 18th hole and faced a 108-foot putt for par.
“You're just standing there praying for a two-putt bogey,” said Stenson, who converted the par attempt. “Before I know it, I think it found the bottom of the cup. That's the longest putt I've made in my career.”
Stenson’s closing stretch was even more eventful when he played his last five holes without a par, a run that included two bogeys and three birdies.
However he got there, Stenson’s position near the top of an eclectic leaderboard was an ominous sign. It’s not exactly Michael Phelps at the turn of the 200-meter butterfly, but there is an air of intimidation to the Swede’s play this week that wasn’t there just six weeks ago.
“He's the man to beat, I reckon,” said Justin Rose, who is tied for fourth, two strokes behind Stenson. “He's obviously ice cold and we all know when he gets into a rhythm as we saw at Royal Troon, he's a pretty special player.”
Stenson’s nickname has never fit him perfectly. The Iceman can certainly look the part at times as he makes his way from shot to shot, but he’s certainly proven that he’s not above the occasional meltdown.
Just as it was starting to look like Stenson was poised to force his will on the Rio field, he acknowledged the 600-pound capybara in the room. For Stenson, just as it is for most players in this week’s field, the Olympics have proven to be much more than a curious experiment or exhibition.
“I'm sure that there will be butterflies if you've got a gold medal on the line on Sunday afternoon," he smiled. "I'm sure there might be one little one."