Gulf’s favourite Swede, Henrik Stenson, back for a shot at slam

With victories already in the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai Desert Classic and Qatar Masters, Henrik Stenson is back in the UAE looking to win the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship and finish off the "Gulf Slam" writes Steve Elling.

Henrik Stenson, who has twice finished second at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, is desperate to win to complete a full complement of Desert Swing victories. Andrew Redington / Getty Images
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Abu Dhabi // For a guy who was born and raised in a country with mountains, woodlands, neck-high snowdrifts and herds of reindeer, Henrik Stenson seems to have found a liking for the alternative to become golf’s king of the desert.

It isn’t just that he won the DP World Tour Championship last autumn, securing the Race to Dubai title and all of its bonus money. Or that he won the elite Accenture Match Play Championship in 2007, played amid statuesque Saguaro cacti in the Arizona desert.

He has also become a walking, talking emissary of the European Tour’s Desert Swing.

He has never missed the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, which begins play for the ninth year tomorrow with Stenson, the world No 3 and a Dubai resident for nearly a decade, as the top-rated player in the field.

His presence is anything but surprising. Since landing a European Tour card in 2001, Stenson has played in the Qatar Masters and Dubai Desert Classic every year. He has played in the Race to Dubai finale every year in which he has been eligible, too.

So, of the four European Tour events staged in the region, he’s won three of them and finished second in Abu Dhabi twice. After his win in Dubai in November, he can complete what has quickly been dubbed the Gulf Slam with a victory this week.

“It’s the one tournament in this part of the world that I haven’t won,” he said today. “It would be a nice one to add to my collection here, having made Dubai my home for almost 10 years.”

It would represent a stirring start to the new year after a career-defining season. Stenson last year became the first player to claim the Race to Dubai and Fed Ex Cup titles in the same year and hauled in about US$20 million (Dh73.5m) in earnings and bonuses.

He had hardly set foot on the Abu Dhabi Golf Club property yesterday when the notion of bettering those results was broached. Talk about million-dollar questions.

“I’m open for suggestions,” he said. “Maybe we don’t need to better it. Maybe we just need to equal it. I’m not greedy.”

After a Herculean schedule last year that entailed 31 global starts, Stenson has signed up for all three Desert Swing events in succession, starting this week. He won the Qatar Classic in 2006 and the Dubai Desert Classic a year later. He finished second in Abu Dhabi in 2006 – where he lost by one shot to Chris DiMarco – and 2008.

With most top-10 players piecing together schedules consisting of about 20 starts, Stenson was on the road so often, he felt like a valet. Then again, there might be a less-obvious reason for his fat frequent-flyer account.

Stenson is building new homes in Sweden and Florida. For anybody who has built a house from scratch, being on the road for two-thirds of the year would just about be welcome respite.

“It was probably a good thing playing a lot of tournaments,” he said, laughing. “If you’re running around looking at tiles rather than making three-footers, then it can affect you.”

Stenson was back on the airline shuttle over the past two weeks, too. He spent a few days in Dubai practising, then hopped on a jet last weekend to Stockholm, where he was named Sweden’s Male Sports Athlete of the Year at a gala awards banquet. He also won a live fan vote as the people’s pick for top sports figure of 2013.

Robert Karlsson, who won the European Order of Merit in 2008, is the only other male golfer to have won the people’s award, although Hall of Fame golfer Annika Sorenstam won it multiple times.

While honorariums are nice, Stenson’s eyes are on four particular trophies in 2014. He finished third or better at the British Open and PGA Championship last season and no male Swede has ever won a major.

“It’s the last thing kind of on my CV to add,” he said. “That would be icing on the cake. It’s kind of the one thing missing. So that’s going to be the main focus, to try and prepare well.

“I’m very positive that it will happen at some point. Hopefully, I can be the one.”

Interesting choice of words, since he has openly talked about being “the one” – as in number one in the world. Only Tiger Woods and Adam Scott are ahead of him, although Stenson, having fought through two lengthy career slumps, knows there is more left in his tank.

“There is still room for improvement, I promise,” he said.

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