Henrik Steson joins World's elite
Henrik Stenson's victory at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship underlined the Swede's burgeoning status as an elite player as well as the globalisation of professional golf.
Stenson beat defending champion Geoff Ogilvy of Australia 2&1 in Sunday's 36-hole final, a maiden PGA Tour title which has lifted him to a career-high fifth in the world rankings.
He has won twice in his last two starts, having held off Tiger Woods among others to clinch this month's Dubai Desert Classic, and is almost certain to be a factor in this year's majors.
Although Stenson is not yet well known in the United States, that is likely to change significantly this season when he Dubai-based professional plans to split his playing schedule between the European Tour and the more lucrative PGA Tour.
"I've taken up membership of the PGA Tour and I'm playing about 15, 16 events this year in the U.S.," the 30-year-old Swede told reporters at Dove Mountain's Gallery Golf Club.
As Stenson knows well, many American golf fans determine a player's stature by success on the PGA Tour, regardless of how he fares on other circuits around the world.
"Golf is big in America but to some extent it's easy to just look at the tournaments within the United States and maybe forget a little bit about the rest of the world," the six-times European Tour winner said.
"But I have played pretty good for the last two years and made my way up the world rankings. I think just playing over here is going to make me a little bit more familiar with the general golf fan."
Many of those general golf fans will have been severely jolted by how last week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship panned out.
For the first time in the event's nine-year history, no American reached the final and big names such as Woods and Masters champion Phil Mickelson were ousted in the earlier rounds.
The shift in golf's balance of power from the U.S. to other countries was also sharply highlighted at Dove Mountain.
A record-low 23 Americans teed off in the opening round of the 64-man event and for the first time since the inaugural edition in 1999, only one U.S. player reached the last eight -- Chad Campbell.
Although Augusta-native Charles Howell III started the tournament in style before exiting in the third round, the most impressive performances by twenty-somethings came from non-Americans.
Justin Rose, 26, and Paul Casey, 27, served notice they are ready to contend at the highest level before going out in the last eight.
South Africa's Trevor Immelman, also 27, looked as though as he might last the full distance before losing to Stenson in the semi-finals. He ended the tournament by beating American Campbell 4&2 in the consolation match to secure third place.
Although Stenson is only a few years older, he took note of the glittering performances posted by the younger guns at Dove Mountain.
"We've had some great young players playing well this week," he said. "Trevor played great, as did Justin Rose and Paul Casey.
"There's always progress, young players coming on, and some of the older ones are having tougher times keeping up, I guess."
Over the last few years, the burning question for golf fans is whether world number one Woods can ever be challenged consistently in the majors.
Although the likes of Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh have had their moments, none has so far stood up to the test when Tiger has performed at full throttle.
Of course, it could be argued that Woods has already become the greatest player in history and that Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan, among others, would have also suffered by comparison.
Whether Stenson, U.S. Open champion Ogilvy and Immelman can make a difference as Tiger rivals in the future remains to be seen.
It is encouraging, though, that all three are younger than Woods and appear to have the requisite mental strength for major survival.
Ogilvy already fancies Stenson's chances.
"He can win anything he wants," the 29-year-old from Adelaide said. "He hits it long, he chips and putts pretty well. He's not afraid to win golf tournaments. I can't see any tournament he couldn't win, really."
February 27, 2007