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Written by Mike McAllister

BEDMINSTER, N.J. – Late Friday afternoon, after playing his first round as a LIV Golf member, Henrik Stenson stood next to rival Phil Mickelson as part of the group of players fielding questions from the media. As Mickelson was telling the background story of his family’s recent trip to Rwanda – in which he shot a promotional video with gorillas in the background – Stenson suddenly started beating his chest.

The Iceman had briefly turned Ape-man.

As the others broke into grins, Stenson flashed a sly smile. Relying on his dry sense of humor, a quick wit and underappreciated comedic timing, he enjoys deviating from the Stoic Swede persona whenever he sees a proper opportunity. But until teeing it up at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, it’s doubtful the previous couple of weeks were all that merry for the one-time major champion.

After all, he was not allowed to maintain his duties as Europe’s 2023 Ryder Cup captain after joining LIV Golf. Stenson told European officials he could handle the demands of the job while also playing the LIV events, but given golf’s current climate, other factors came into play. So Stenson, a five-time Ryder Cupper as a player, was unceremoniously released.

“I made every arrangement possible here to be able to fulfill my captain's duties, and I've had great help here from LIV to be able to do that,” he said. “And still, the decision was made that I was to be removed. I'm obviously disappointed over the situation. But it is what it is, and yeah, we move on from there now.”

Stenson wasn’t the only one who considered it unfair. So did another well-respected European veteran, England’s Lee Westwood.

“Captains that have captained the European Ryder Cup team have been members of other tours before,” Westwood said. “So it does seem like everybody is making reactionary decisions to what’s happening. They’re definitely not sticking to the rules that were set out. They’re changing the rules. Padraig (Harrington) is a member of the PGA Tour and he did the Ryder Cup captaincy (in 2021).

“I’ve spoken to Henrik. He said he was going to fulfill all the requirements of being captain. Yeah, I’m disappointed he’s been stripped of it.”

On Thursday, Stenson joined his new teammates on Majesticks GC – the team captained by Westwood that also includes another celebrated Ryder Cupper, Ian Poulter, as well as up-and-comer Sam Horsfield – in his first press conference as a LIV member. He knew he would have to answer questions about the recent developments. There was nothing to joke about on this occasion.

But once the press conference was completed, Stenson set about focusing on the singular task at hand: Playing up to his elite-level capabilities. Westwood could tell right away that his friend was full of both motivation and determination.

“Once he had done his press conference on Thursday – he was obviously thinking about that a lot – he played with a clear mind,” Westwood said. “Just focused on the golf.”

And as we learned in his three rounds at Bedminster, a focused Stenson is a dangerous one for the rest of the field.

Leaning heavily on his 3-wood off most tee boxes, and then relying on his dependable iron play from the fairways, Stenson immediately proceeded to carve up Bedminster. Hitting 17 of 18 greens in the first round, he opened with a 7-under 64 to share the lead with Patrick Reed. He took control of the tournament with a second-round 69, giving him a 3-shot cushion over Dustin Johnson entering Sunday. He then opened with a birdie while Johnson bogeyed. The early two-shot swing put Stenson up by five – and he never opened the door for anybody to sufficiently pressure him.

Only one player performed better tee-to-green at Bedminster: Westwood, who ranked first in fairways hit and greens in regulation for the week. Stenson was second in both categories but was much more productive with the putter. Westwood could only applaud his new teammate.

“Not a bad way to start your LIV Golf career, is it?” Westwood said. “I think he’s been playing quite well recently and not getting the results. Good to see him playing well again.”

Said Stenson: “I'm super-proud with the focus I managed to have this week and to get my game in. I've been working pretty hard to get the game back in shape, and it's certainly going in the right direction as we know now.”

And certainly good for Majesticks GC, which took second in the team competition behind 4 Aces GC. It’s the second time in the three LIV Golf events that Majesticks has finished on the podium, having finished third in the opening event in London. It also alleviated any concerns about breaking up the all-England team to add the Swede.

“Henrik’s a very calm dude,” said Horsfield. “He just has a little aura around him. Very calm. Very chill. They don’t call him the Iceman for no reason, right? I’ve known him for a quite awhile. It’s been good fun. Look forward to the rest of the year.”

Focused and having fun. Those are two things Stenson could get used to enjoying in LIV Golf. And, of course, there’s that one other intangible at play. He’s properly motivated. You could hear it during his post-tournament comments when Stenson said he “played like a captain.”

“When we as players have that, I think we can bring out the good stuff,” Stenson said later. “I certainly did that this week. I guess that's been a bit of a theme over the course of my career, I think, when I really want something I manage to dig a little bit deeper, and a lot of times we manage to make it happen.”

He made it happen quickly in LIV Golf. The fun times are back.

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