In the space of 12 fraught months Henrik Stenson has gone from Ryder Cup captain elect to accepting the role, effectively being dismissed and finding himself in legal dispute with the very group he was briefly representing. Stenson’s scenario rather sums up golf’s madcap times. Nothing outside the ropes is straightforward any more.
As Luke Donald, who will lead Europe against the United States in Rome in September, surged to the top of the Abu Dhabi Championship leaderboard on Thursday it felt poetic that Stenson came hot on his heels.
“Stranger things have happened,” said Stenson when the prospect of turning up at the Ryder Cup as a player was put to him. But if a case between Stenson, his fellow LIV rebels and the European Tour Group in early February goes the circuit’s way, back-to-back events in the Middle East could deliver the last sightings of certain players on their home Tour.
Stenson posted a 68 on his first DP World Tour start since last year’s Scottish Open. “I made my decision and Ryder Cup Europe made theirs,” said the Swede. “It’s not great, but it is what it is.
“The Ryder Cup has been a huge part of my career. I wish Luke all the best with the team going forward and we’ll see where we all end up in the long run with this. There’s a lot of people that I have spent many years with and they continue to be my friends no matter where I play my golf.”
There are, however, those who believe players who succumbed to LIV’s riches should stay well clear of this tour. Stenson said “absolutely, no question” when asked whether he felt welcome at Yas Links. “The way I look at it, when all of us went to play on the PGA Tour back in the day, we shouldn’t have been welcomed back either then.
“There’s multiple tours in the world and as far as I’m concerned, as long as you fulfil your criteria and earn your right to be there, you should be able to play in as many tournaments as you like. But I haven’t had one player step up to me and vent those thoughts.”
It has been easy to forget Donald was a longtime world No 1, after a decline that has left him sliding to 541st in the rankings. He has featured in two majors since the start of 2017.
Elevation to Ryder Cup captaincy has perhaps given Donald new focus. His first-round 64 here inevitably triggered questions over whether he could qualify for his own side. “I’m just making myself the aim for the guys that are trying to make the team,” he said with a smile. “If they can’t beat me, then what the hell are they doing? Hopefully I’m inspiring them.
“It would be tough to be a playing captain. I’ve been a vice-captain twice. I’ve been around other captains. There’s a lot going on. It’s early days and a nice start to the week. But nothing more.”
Two players with strong aspirations of joining Donald in Italy started promisingly. Guido Migliozzi eagled the 1st, his 10th, courtesy of an 88-yard hole out when en route to a 65. Séamus Power, the US-based Irishman, is a stroke adrift of Migliozzi and Jason Scrivener. Shane Lowry looked content with a 67 while Tommy Fleetwood celebrated his 32nd birthday by posting a 68.