Can Stenson replicate Open success?

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The Open 2016: Henrik Stenson beats Phil Mickelson in final-day battle
2017 Open Championship on the BBC
Venue: Royal Birkdale Date: 20-23 July
Coverage: Live radio and text commentary – including in-play video clips – on the BBC Sport website, mobile app and BBC Radio 5 live. TV highlights each night on BBC Two. Click for full times.

It was a chance meeting in an empty car park just over a week after he had played the golf of his life.

Henrik Stenson was in a rare moment of solitude. His life had been turned on its head after the spectacular 63 that secured his stunning victory over Phil Mickelson.

That epic, record-breaking duel at Royal Troon yielded the Open Championship and, aged 40, the Swede’s long-overdue first major title.

Now he was at the US PGA, the next major, and was packing his bags into the back of his car. He smiled and readily accepted another congratulatory handshake.

“You know what – that was something truly amazing,” I said.

“I know, the reaction has been incredible,” he replied. “You have no idea when you are in the middle of it.”

It is now almost a year since his three-shot victory, his 20-under-par total leaving him 14 clear of JB Holmes in third.

The famous Claret Jug is heading back into the hands of the R&A, and Stenson is readying himself for this week’s title defence at Royal Birkdale.

Golf does not stand still. The scale of Stenson’s task is made all the harder by a long list of likely rivals who covet the oldest and most important title in the game.

Birkdale was the venue the last time the Open was won by a defending champion – Padraig Harrington’s victory in 2008.

But if Stenson is to emulate the Irishman, he has to beat challenges from all over the globe.

There is a rampant newcomer in Spain’s John Rahm, in-form local lad Tommy Fleetwood, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and a string of Americans headed by world number one Dustin Johnson and including players such as Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and US Open champion Brooks Koepka.

Do not discount Masters winner Sergio Garcia, who has all the attributes to overcome the magnificently demanding yet fair Southport links, or Olympic champion Justin Rose, who made his breakthrough as an amateur at Birkdale in 1998, holing out from the rough to finish fourth aged just 17.

Justin Rose is one of a large number of potential winners at Birkdale this year

Adam Scott is another who fits the profile of a potential winner.

The Australian came desperately close at Lytham in 2012 and played the Scottish Open last week, a proven event for producing Open champions. Six of the past seven winners have competed on the links of Scotland the week before the championship, and Sunday’s winner Rafa Cabrera-Bello is a quality ball-striker who will feel renewed confidence.

And then there is golf’s capacity, like no other sport, for throwing up winners no-one can predict – a Ben Curtis (2003) or Todd Hamilton (2004) type who reserves his best golf for the week that matters most.

But there can be no doubting the pedigree of the reigning champion, and Stenson has allowed himself the odd moment to reflect on the scale of his Troon achievement.

“It’s certainly not something that I want undone,” he told BBC Sport.

“It was a career dream and a childhood dream that came true winning the Open Championship last year. So it’s been hectic but it’s been a very good year.”

The Claret Jug has taken pride of place, a focal point to remind him of that extraordinary Ayrshire weekend when nothing was going to deny his quest to become Sweden’s first male major winner.

“When I had a bit of a break over Christmas, I would walk into my office in my house and there it is. You just think back to that wonderful week and how well I played and what I managed to accomplish,” he said.

“To play your best golf when it matters the most in the tournament that you most of all want to win, it was something very special.

“Of course at that point the number one priority was to win the Claret Jug and get your name on there.

“But the way we managed to win, the level of golf that Phil and I played, put me in the record books and that could be something to be very proud of over time.

“There could be a race to overtake them this week but they could stay for 30 years or so.”

Stenson the record-breaker
His 20-under total eclipsed Tiger Woods’ 19-under-par record total in winning The Open at St Andrews in 2000.
It also equalled Jason Day’s record in a major, which the Australian set at the 2015 US PGA Championship.
Stenson’s 63 beat two-time Open champion Greg Norman’s 64 at Royal St George’s in 1993 as the lowest final round by a champion.
His aggregate score of 264 beat the Australian’s four-round total of 267, set the same year.
His 63 equalled the lowest ever to win a major, emulating Johnny Miller’s score to win the 1973 US Open at Oakmont.

Stenson began that final round with a sloppy bogey, and Mickelson’s birdie led to a two-shot swing on the opening hole.

But thereafter the Swede went on the rampage, culminating with birdies on three of the closing four holes to bring a testing Troon to its knees.

There was no rush to watch replays of his greatest golf.

“It took a good two or three months to actually watch the final round and it is always a little surreal to watch yourself,” he said.

“It all feels very natural because you were there, and I was the one playing, but at the same time you haven’t watched it from the outside, so to speak, so it is a different thing to watch it on tape.

“If I ever need a little boost in the right direction and remind myself of what I can do, I can always go back and pick that tape up again.”

Stenson, though, knows this is not the time for reflection. A mediocre performance to finish tied 26th at last week’s Scottish Open sums up the past year, and he has yet to return to winnings ways.

“At times I feel like I’ve been a little bit off, mentally, and the focus hasn’t been there 100%,” he admits.

“It’s kind of hard to turn the page because you are always talking about what happened last summer and with this game you have got to be in the moment and keep looking forward.”

That will have to be the case at Birkdale this week. Arguably the finest golf course in England, it invariably identifies great champions.

The roll of honour includes greats such as Peter Thomson, who won there twice, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller. Mark O’Meara was the Masters champion when he won in 1998 and Harrington was a dominant force in 2008.

Given his stratospheric standards a year ago, Stenson has a tough act to follow.

Add in the strength in depth at the top of the game and the pedigree of previous Birkdale winners, he knows his mind cannot wander this week.

No matter how great are the memories.

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