Henrik Stenson: 'The Players Championship should be golf's fifth major'

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Next week will mark 11 years since Henrik Stenson won the Players Championship. The Swede can still remember the victory celebration even now, though not for the reason you might expect. He was given a speeding ticket on his way back to Orlando.

“I think 90 [mph] is enough to get attention, I guess,” he says with a smile.

The laughter which follows is symptomatic of his deadpan humour in interviews, to the point that you do wonder when he is being serious. The reality is that few play the role of a showman and joker quite like the 43-year-old, as his membership of the European Tour ‘Content Committee’ demonstrates.

He’s also not afraid to speak his mind and while he can’t resist the occasional jab at some of his peers, he has plenty to say on some of the bigger issues affecting the game which are no laughing matter...

Brandel Chamblee has said that he thinks the Players Championship is the premier golf event. Would you agree with that and do you think it should be considered the fifth major? We’ve always said that – it’s got the strongest field in golf. There’s no question about that. It’s played on a great golf course that doesn’t really suit anyone’s game that much. We’ve seen a wide variety of people winning it, both long and short hitters, at [TPC] Sawgrass. If I’m not mistaken, even Rory [McIlroy] skipped it because he didn’t like it. But in 2019, he won the tournament. It just shows that if you play great golf, you’ve got a great chance of winning.

What do you think about the European Tour’s new policy on slow play?
I think it’s good. Something needed to be done. We are never going to play in two and a half hours. With a full field, they are saying that 4.20/4.30 is the quickest you can go round. There’s no point having expectations that are much quicker than that, but it would be nice to get it down from five and a half hours to five at least. At the end of the day, I’m not sure 10 minutes is going to make a huge difference. But we can’t have players on a regular basis taking two and a half minutes to hit a five footer. That’s not going to be on anyone’s wish list.

Are some tournaments on the European Tour, especially those in the first half of the year, in danger of losing some of their prestige and sponsors because of the inability to attract the best players?
I think the Desert Swing produces strong fields, but of course from February up until Augusta there is some difficulty attracting the fields and that’s most likely going to continue to be the case. I mean, I live in America and I play my whole spring schedule in the US. Then later in the summer I’ll play in Europe. 

Do you think the current schedule is sustainable for the European Tour and its members?
That’s not really for me to comment on how the European Tour should structure their season. If I’m taking a personal view on the schedule, then you could argue that there are a few too many tournaments. But at the same time players want playing opportunities and the players that are lower down the rankings want to have tournaments to play in so they can play their way into the Rolex Series events, the majors, the WGCs. You’ve got to cater for a lot of different interests. 

Given the power, what one thing would you change in golf?
I think you can determine quite a lot on golf course setup. I think you want to have a setup that challenges players on every aspect of the game, not just on whoever hits it the furthest. It shouldn’t favour any one area too much and I think that would be the fairest test.

Do you think we will ever see equal prize money in golf?
Well The R&A upped the women’s prize fund by 40 per cent last year, so they took a very big step in that direction. I think it’s important to look at the reason why there’s a big difference. Just taking money from one corner and putting it in another… I don’t know if that’s going to solve every problem. The money is driven by spectators, the sponsorship and the TV rights so if you can fix those things, the prize funds will follow.

You recently designed your first golf course, Oster by Stensonin Sweden. Could it be the first of many?
Hopefully. It was exciting to see the finished product. The project has taken four years, and the actual building took two and a half years. The pictures look great and we are trying to cater for many different player types. We haven’t closed the entries to the greens with water or bunkers too much. We’ve left somewhere for the player who doesn’t have the ultimate skillset so they can still get around. I wanted to create a course which anyone could enjoy, whether you play off plus two or if you’re a 25 handicapper.

You turn 44 next month. How is the body holding up and how long do you think you can remain competitive for?
I’ve probably hit a million golf balls in my career, so naturally there are going to be a few kinks in there. I’ve had a few knee operations, though nothing recently, and problems with my forearms. But overall it’s pretty good. I still consider myself pretty fortunate compared to what could have been. If you look at Tiger [Woods] and other players at my age, they’ve had to overcome bigger obstacles in the physical department than I have during my career. But If there’s one thing I could go back and do over, I would focus more on the recovery/fitness side earlier. I only started doing it in my early 30s. It’s one of the more important things I’ve done for my longevity and being able to compete at a high level.

Does that mean you can still keep up with some of the younger guys like Brooks Koepka in the gym?
Brooks normally can’t keep up in the gym, especially with my arm curls. He’s always looked at me a bit envious. He’s got a way to catch-up with me, what do you think? I think he takes a slightly different approach. He does a lot more heavy lifting and is much bigger than me. I do some strength exercises but a lot is more function and mobility, focusing on my back and core.

After winning silver at the Rio Olympics, how much are you looking forward to competing in Tokyo this summer?
Yeah, I'm looking forward to making a second Olympics. There's only one thing that could make that super special and that would be to go one better than I did in Rio. I came very close to winning gold and had a great fight with my good friend Justin [Rose] down the last. He won that one fair and square, so let's see if I can win in Tokyo fair and square then.

Henrik Stenson has partnered with leading healthcare provider Schoen Clinic London. Schoen Clinic London, a world renowned innovator in the treatment and prevention of sports related injuries, is lending its expertise to benefit some of the world’s leading golfers including Stenson, Georgia Hall, Francesco Molinari and Padraig Harrington. Visit www.schoen-clinic.co.uk to learn more.