If Jon Rahm’s dismissal of Brooks Koepka on Masters Sunday was heralded as a victory for golf’s establishment, LIV’s finest hour was still to come. Koepka won the US PGA Championship in May, giving the rebel tour a first major champion. Cameron Smith had already won the Open Championship by the time he joined LIV’s 54-hole format.
Henrik Stenson is well aware his time jousting for golf’s biggest prizes was curtailed in common discourse when he joined LIV’s number. As the Open once again arrives, are LIV players still regarded as competitively redundant? Surely not.
“I don’t know if there is a small group that still has that thought but I think the players on LIV have proven over and over in the last six months that they are competitive,” Stenson says.
“I’m not saying 48 LIV guys have been at the top in majors but a big part of the PGA Tour has not been at the top in majors, either. LIV players qualifying for majors, making cuts and being at the top of those tournaments … if people want to keep going on another theme, that’s up to them.
“People said: ‘Oh Brooks didn’t win the Masters because it was four rounds.’ Well, Phil Mickelson finished [joint] second because of a fourth-round 65. So which way are you going to have it?” The point is valid.
Stenson, who lifted the Claret Jug in 2016, was a model of major consistency around that time. Injury, loss of form and the LIV leap have contributed to a situation where the Open is the only one of golf’s big four he will play this year. The 47-year-old arrives at Royal Liverpool with no shortage of motivation.
“With the history I have at the Open, it is the one that means the most to me anyway,” he says. “It is a special event. The Open always brings back great memories.
“I want to play well for myself. If I do all my things right, I still compete at a high level. My issue is that I have not been at my level enough times. Then it doesn’t matter what course or what tournament you are at. I’ve been working hard at trying to get my form back but when things are working, I still have the game to compete.
“Is it good enough to win a major? I don’t know. Yes, I look to prove people wrong at times – that can be a motivator. There’s no question no matter whatever tour you are playing is competitive. You always want to beat whoever is in front of you. I am confident that playing well, I can have a good Open Championship.”
Including, perhaps, because it hurt watching the Masters on television. Stenson did not miss a trip to Augusta National between 2006 and 2021. “Mentally, when you know you are not qualified you hit a switch and know you are not going to be there,” he says. “Then of course you have memories and in the spring you know Masters time is coming. There are mixed emotions but it’s a natural progression; a lot of other things have been going on in golf but I’m not so sure I would have qualified for the Masters anyway.”
Stenson’s record over two Opens at this venue is uninspiring by his standards: a tie for 48th and a share of 39th. He still looks back at Royal Troon and the epic battle with Mickelson of seven years ago. “I will probably watch a bit of Tiger in ’06 going into this one to get a feel for the course,” Stenson says. Woods’s game management in that Open is the stuff of legend.
Stenson is one of a number of LIV golfers who look perfectly content in their chosen environment. Gone are the anxious glances of 2022. “When LIV started, if you mentioned anything else you were being told: ‘You are lying, it is only about money.’ The season I am looking at now is nine months. I have a three-month break. That is a huge benefit at this age. Nobody wanted to listen to that but it is part of it. For those of us who have been dual Tour members for so many years, you basically had an 11-month season. I was keen to get going again at the start of this season.
“Like anything in life, if you do something for many, many years it just feels the same. We played in many great tournaments but there were some where you were staying in a hotel room next to the highway, cars whizzing by and you are eating takeaway three nights a week while playing an average golf course. I am not playing the violin – we have all been lucky and on an amazing journey – but there is a point where other things in life are more important.”
Not that a further tilt at major glory would do any harm.