Stenson has been to hell and back

"It started with a few bad swings that led to a few bad shots. Then it turned into a mental problem." -- Henrik Stenson

"For a while he had trouble hitting the world. … It is the hardest thing I've ever done as a teacher." -- Pete Cowen, swing coach

"At times he felt ashamed of himself. … He ended up with a real choking problem with the long clubs." -- Torsten Hansson, sports psychologist

The day he said the hell with it and walked in -- July 5, 2001 -- was really the beginning of Henrik Stenson's golf life. For the other players competing in the opening round of the European Open at The K Club, it was just another day on tour. But for the Swede whose compatriots have come to call "our special one," it was the lowest point in a disastrous 18 months that made his name one to be whispered by his fellow pros, lest they be infected with the insidious disease that had apparently taken hold of Stenson's golf swing.

Was a scratch player at age 18 and turned pro with a plus-4 handicap in 1998. … Ranked No. 16 in the world. … Second on the European tour in putting and is T-20 in scoring average (70.98) and 24th in driving (296.6). … Won the 2001 Benson and Hedges International Open, 2004 Heritage and 2006 Qatar Masters. … Won three times on the 2000 European Challenge Tour and topped the money list. … Won the 1996 Italian Amateur and 1997 Greek Amateur. … Aced the 13th hole at the 2006 Players Championship for his first hole-in-one in a tournament. … 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds. … Wears sunglasses because his eyes are sensitive to glare. … Born in Gothenburg, Sweden.

"I make a much shallower swing with the shorter clubs now. I can control the distance more and the flight on the shots. And I have picked up bits and pieces since. I can hit a variety of shots with the short irons."

Playing with Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sandy Lyle, Stenson started on the 10th hole and needed three tee shots -- all with a 3-wood -- before he hit one he thought he could find. Three holes later he arrived on a tee where, 24 hours earlier, he had hit a massive hook that finished two fairways left of the one he was targeting. In a wild overcompensation, Stenson struck the opposite shot, a slice that expired "maybe 400 yards from his drive the previous day," according to swing coach Pete Cowen, the man Stenson turned to in the wake of a nightmare he brought to a halt on the 18th green.

"After nine holes, I told the guys they'd be better off without me," Stenson recalls. "The balls were all over the place."

Amazingly, only two months before that embarrassment, Stenson had won a tournament, the Benson and Hedges International at The Belfry, seen at the time as the natural extension of a career that was progressing seamlessly.

Five years after the victory at The Belfry, that assessment of Stenson, 30, is true again after a total rebuilding of his swing and golf psyche. He has produced two more wins, a No. 16 World Golf Ranking and a succession of high finishes, including third places in this year's Players Championship and last year's WGC-AmEx Championship, where winner Tiger Woods was moved to comment favorably on Stenson's play when the two were paired. That progress is the latest confirmation that Stenson is, alongside Englishman David Howell, the next big thing in European golf. They form the core of the team that will defend the Ryder Cup against the Americans at, coincidentally for Stenson, The K Club.

All of which is a long way from the bedraggled and depressed figure who first met with Cowen during the 2001 Volvo Masters in Spain.

"He had a lot of promise but had lost his way," says Cowen, an Englishman who has worked with, among others, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood. "He needed to understand why his mechanics were breaking down. Anyone can win on hand-eye coordination and manipulation, and that is what Henrik had done. So his good shots were fine; it was the bad shots that were a real problem. For a while he had trouble hitting the world."

The two started over, rebuilding Stenson's swing.

"He didn't know how it worked," Cowen says. "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.

"He needed a swing that would stand up under pressure. It is the hardest thing I've ever done as a teacher. But he wanted to do it, which is a prerequisite. He was prepared to do whatever it took to get the job done."

At first, to the surprise of no one, Stenson got worse -- a lot worse. A look at his play during 2002 reveals some gruesome statistics. By the end of the season he was 176th on the Order of Merit with earnings of 42,283 Euros, less than one-tenth of what he made the year before. In 22 events, he made only eight cuts and broke 70 on a mere five occasions, and his stroke average of 73.64 was almost 4 shots higher than it would be in 2005 (69.97).

Throughout that traumatic period of his life, Stenson worked with sport psychologist Torsten Hansson, a former diver in the Swedish navy. The pair had first come into contact through Hansson's work with Swedish amateur golf, and their relationship was tested as never before.

"For the first six months things weren't too bad in that he wasn't expecting too much success," Hansson says. "But after that, he was struggling mentally. At times he felt ashamed of himself. He had guilt, and his ego suffered. He ended up with a real choking problem with the long clubs. For a time he played with his eyes closed, so that he could focus on releasing the club properly.

"For us both, it was hard work. He could understand the process intellectually, but it was more difficult emotionally."

The decline had started shortly after Stenson's victory at The Belfry in 2001.

"My form slowly left me," he says. "It started with a few bad swings that led to a few bad shots. Then it turned into a mental problem. It was more mental than physical. It was hard to get over that loss of confidence and change my whole technique at the same time."

Making the change

"I remember a time when he and I were practicing," says former British Amateur champion Christian Hardin, the teaching professional at the Barseback Golf & Country Club, where Stenson is a five-time "Klubbmastare Herrar" (men's club champion) and his girlfriend, Emma Lofgren, has won the ladies championship three times. "He asked me how to play the shots 'under' the wind. We stood there for two hours, and he didn't get one right. Every shot was way too high. I think sessions like that convinced him he had to change."

Stenson's problem, not uncommon in tall men (he's 6-foot-1), was a downswing that was too steep. With such abruptness came a spiraling ball flight, one that lacked real penetration into anything more than the slightest breeze.

"I'd always been OK with the longer clubs, but because I was steep into the ball I struggled with the short irons," he says. "So I was a poor wedge player. And that is the part of my game that has developed the most over the last two years.

"I had too much of a lateral move in my swing, especially through the ball. And I still have to fight that. If you watch me at address, you'll notice the last thing I do before the club starts back is shift my head a little to the right. That helps me stay behind the ball through impact."

To Stenson's credit, he managed, as much as anyone could, not to take his golf problems away from the course.

"I saw him a lot during that time, and he never changed," says Goran Zachrisson, who commentates on golf for Swedish television. "He is the same now. He's not afraid to speak his mind, and he isn't one for changing his position on things. He isn't one for ingratiating himself just for the sake of it. I never doubted he would come back and that he would win again."

Stenson never gave up.

"I kept on fighting," he says. "That sort of thing makes you stronger eventually. I was still struggling in 2003. It wasn't until September that I could feel a difference. For the first time in two years I felt like I could play and compete on tour."

Which is not to say that Stenson never lost his temper. By his admission, Stenson, even now, has to count to 10 more often than he should.

"I am a perfectionist," he acknowledges. "I get far more upset on the range [where he is hailed by fellow professional Mark Roe as the master of the downward-thrusting, stick-it-in-the-ground throw] than I do on the course. When I am in a good shape mentally, my patience is good, and I stay calm. But when the head is a bit rocky, my patience wears thin, and that's when it turns ugly. I have to let the steam out sometimes. It happens that a clubhead gets separated from its shaft, stuff like that."

These days, however, losses of control -- either his own or of his golf ball -- are less frequent.

"When you play badly and come back, there is a lot of satisfaction in proving the doubters wrong," he says. "A lot of people felt I was done and dusted."

There is much to look forward to, not least the biennial tussle with the Americans. After success in the '05 Seve Trophy, where he was unbeaten in five matches for Continental Europe against the British Isles, and the '06 Royal Trophy, where he won all three matches and recorded Europe's winning point against Asia, Stenson looks likely to be one of captain Ian Woosnam's horses in Ireland.

"I can't describe my excitement enough," he says. "I'm part of the first generation of continental Europeans who know nothing else but the Ryder Cup. I'm not sure what is hardest: getting into the side, or doing well once you are there. But I have had time to think about the latter, and I am determined not to let anyone down."

Stenson will arrive at The K Club with one last thing to prove in his rehabilitation, if only to himself. Even the important matter of scoring Ryder Cup points will have to wait until one fairway in particular has been split with a drive. Then, on Sept. 22, 2006, Day 1 of the matches, he'll be ready.

John Huggan is Golf Digest magazine's European correspondent