Henrik Stenson sacrificed more than most by hitching his wagon to the war chest being offered by the Saudis. Now he wants you to hear his side of the story and why he feels vindicated in his decision to join LIV.
As far as statement signings go, convincing Henrik Stenson to switch sides must surely rank as one
of LIV Golf’s biggest power plays. No one expected it, least of all the five members of the European Ryder Cup committee who had put their faith in the Swede above Luke Donald.
Stenson always seemed untouchable, too wedded to the task of leading Europe in Rome this year. When he was named captain in March 2022, he called it a dream come true.
The 47-year-old insists he did everything he could to be able to continue in the post, but the men that mattered decided otherwise and relieved him of his duties on the basis that he was unable to fulfill contractual obligations. He lasted just four months.
The former Open champion has always maintained that he knew the risks of siding with the Saudis, though it was with reluctance that he paid his fines and resigned his DP World Tour membership just weeks before news of the merger rocked the game.
“They left me with no other choice,” he says, “so I resigned.”
It is not beyond probability that he will now be offered a route back as part of the peace offering, albeit there’s no guarantee he will want to take it.
It would take a lot to forgive and forget after everything that’s happened and it’s unlikely that the Ryder Cup captaincy will ever be offered to him again. Lee Westwood has already said he won’t be coming back and no doubt there will be others who feel the same way.
Stenson, for one, is still weighing up his options, though he did make a four-year commitment to LIV when he signed. He has also been honest about his motives from the start.
Speaking ahead of his LIV Golf debut last July, he moved away from the carefully prepared script – the one about growing the game – and admitted that the money and change of lifestyle were simply too good to turn down.
“I’ve been a golf professional since very late 1998 and purse sizes, prize money on offer, the financial part has always been a part of where we made up our schedules and where we are going to play,” he said. “It’s been a part of it, absolutely. It was no different in this case.”
Stenson has previously rejected suggestions that he only accepted the captaincy to leverage a better deal from the Saudis, but what he glosses over is how he gave multiple assurances – privately and publicly – that he wouldn’t be going anywhere once he was appointed.
He even addressed the elephant in the room during his unveiling at a press conference at Wentworth.
“There’s been a lot of speculation back and forth, and as I said, I am fully committed to the captaincy and to Ryder Cup Europe and the job at hand,” Stenson said. “So, we’re going to keep busy with that and I’m going to do everything in my power to deliver a winning team in Rome.”
That should have been that, but the rumor mill kept grinding. By the time he went back on his word, his about-face had become golf’s biggest unkept secret. Stenson’s signing-on bonus was substantial, rumored to be in the region of $40 million.
A win on his LIV Golf debut added another $4 million to the coffers, a lucrative return for three days of work in New Jersey. “I guess we can agree I played like a captain,” Stenson joked on the LIV Golf telecast afterwards.
He is far more diplomatic in his assessment now and rates that two-shot victory in July among the “top three” achievements in his career because of the noise surrounding him at the time.
Even now he struggles to escape the vitriol on social media, and the questions about being complicit in ‘sportswashing’.
He is well-educated on the topic and wonders why LIV and its members are held to a different set of standards when other sports and organizations have done business with the Saudis for their own personal gain.
“If I were to make a schedule throughout my career of places where everything is perfect, I wouldn’t have played a single golf tournament,” he says.
“Every part of the world has its challenges and there are things which can be bettered, whether that’s in the USA, China, Turkey, Dubai or Saudi Arabia. But I have never left a golf tournament anywhere in the world where it’s actually worse than when we came.”
The Swede is on shaky ground when he says he doesn’t wrestle with the morality side but unlike everyone else, he has seen a different side to the world’s moral compass.
In 2010, Stenson lost his game and his personal fortune after being the victim of a Ponzi scheme run by his sponsor, Stanford Financial.
He did make a lot of his money back when he won the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai in 2013 and the Open Championship at Royal Troon three years later, but he was always going to be an easy target for LIV because of the carrot being dangled.
“I’m happy with the decision I made and have no regrets on that,” he says. “After 20 years of competing on the DP World Tour, there were some weeks where that extra buzz wasn’t necessarily there.
“With LIV, it feels like something new and fresh. Starting the 2023 season was the freshest and most motivated I’ve felt to get going for a long, long time.
“Playing two tours like I’ve done for the most part of my career had kind of taken its toll. Not having a proper off-season like in other sports is tough. That’s something I’ve missed for many years. That was a big part (of the attraction) for me, and then there are other things such as the team concept.
“Some of my fondest memories have come from playing team events, like World Cups and Ryder Cups. We’ve got three scores to count out of the four team members and everyone is trying their utmost not to be that number four. That certainly brings an extra bit of motivation, I would say.”
Stenson currently shares captaincy duties of Team Majesticks with Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood. It’s an interesting dynamic, one which may well have come to pass at this year’s Ryder Cup had Stenson still been in charge.
Westwood and Poulter would almost certainly have been playing or assisting Stenson in Rome, but now their collective focus is on building their own team’s franchise alongside Sam Horsfield.
“There’s no hiding the fact that Ian, Lee and myself are on the back nine of our careers,” says Stenson, who shares an equal stake in Majesticks. “There will be a day when we are not playing actively anymore.
“This gives us the opportunity to stay involved in the sport, whether it’s working with talent that might have the potential to play on our team, entertaining partners, and so forth. It just opens up a lot of opportunities and possibilities. That side is exciting.”
The team have hired a general manager to make it work financially and have already agreed three sponsorship deals, more than the other 11 teams put together.
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman has been vocal about how each player is expected to run their team like a business by selling merchandising, hospitality and other sponsorship opportunities. It sounds like a lot to take on, but Stenson only sees positives in LIV’s business model, despite the continued uncertainty over World Ranking recognition.
He has been impressed with what he’s seen so far.
“It hasn’t even been in existence for 12 months and it’s made a remarkable impact in such a short period of time,” he says. “The tournaments have gone from strength to strength with the high of us playing in Adelaide.
“That was an amazing tournament with the crowds and the whole package was certainly the highlight so far. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in Australia. It’s right up there with some of the best tournaments I’ve played over the course of my career, for sure.”
There is a punchy optimism to Stenson’s repeated claims that LIV is growing the game. Despite being dropped as an ambassador for the Swedish Golf Foundation because of his allegiance to LIV, he remains committed to developing junior golf and paragolf in his homeland.
He is especially excited about a new charity initiative, called Little Sticks, which aims to offer a range of junior clinics where the players live, work, and compete.
“We’ve been doing these kind of initiatives for years, but LIV allows us to grow that even more,” he explains. “We had a big group of special needs kids out in Orlando and we really felt the positive impact speaking to parents and reading the thank you emails and letters. All those little things make a big impact.
“One of the biggest pleasures, for me, has been to see so many juniors coming out to the events. That will have a huge impact on the golfing population and in getting a younger demographic into the game. That’s very exciting.”
Stenson has to stop himself from getting too carried away. He refuses to speculate about what the future holds for him or LIV.
He is ruling nothing out and sees no reason to as an independent contractor with a fledgling course design business on the side.
For now, he’s happy with where he’s at, winding down his career on LIV Golf while setting his family up for generations. Put it like that and you can’t really blame him for chasing money and an easier life.
The uncomfortable truth about LIV Golf is that many people would have done the same thing. Some probably wish they had now.
About the author
Michael Catling is Today’s Golfer‘s Features Editor and an award-winning journalist who specializes in golf’s Majors and Tours, including DP World, PGA, LPGA, and LIV.
Michael joined Today’s Golfer in 2016 and has traveled the world to attend the game’s biggest events and secure exclusive interviews with dozens of Major champions, including Jack Nicklaus, Jordan Spieth, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Gary Player, and Justin Thomas.
A former member of Ufford Park and Burghley Park, Michael has been playing golf since he was 11 and currently plays off a handicap of 10.
Away from golf he’s a keen amateur chef and has his own healthy recipes website. He also loves playing squash, going to the gym, and following Chelsea FC.