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Henrik Stenson's late Ryder Cup push continues with early lead in Italy

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Playing four weeks in a row in a last-ditch effort to impress Padraig Harrington, veteran Henrik Stenson is giving the European Ryder Cup captain plenty to consider.

Stenson has endured a difficult last two years on the course but seems to have found his game just in time for a final Ryder Cup push. Following up back-to-back top-4 finishes on the European Tour, Stenson fired a bogey-free 64 Thursday to share the early lead at the Italian Open.

“Once again I think I played a good round of golf,” he said afterward. “More than anything I feel like I am in a good frame of mind to play golf and to try and get the best score out of my game. There is still more to wish for, but we’ve got to take the positives and keep working on the rest.”

Prior to this run, Stenson had failed to finish inside the top 20 in a worldwide event since his victory at the Hero World Challenge exhibition in December 2019. At the time, he was ranked 26th in the world. He had fallen outside the top 200 before this recent stretch returned him to No. 143. 

Full-field scores from the DS Automobiles Italian Open

The chief reason: The 45-year-old Stenson’s legendary ball-striking has tailed off. Had he played enough rounds this season to qualify, he would have ranked 188th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: tee to green. But continued work with swing coach Pete Cowen put him back on the right track, and Stenson committed to this four-week stretch in hopes of finding form and receiving a last-minute spot on Harrington’s Ryder Cup team.

“If I want to have any chance to make the team, this is the 11th hour to wake up,” he said a few weeks ago. “I’m playing four weeks in a row on the European Tour with that intention. I hope I can bring a few birdies for Padraig to consider me in the end, but I need to get going at this point.”

That’s exactly what Stenson has done.

Starting at the Czech Masters, he fired four rounds in the 60s and had a chance to win before a late miscue dropped him into a tie for fourth. Last week at the European Masters, he carded rounds of 63 and 64 while finishing alone in third. Now, at Marco Simone, the 2023 Ryder Cup venue, Stenson carded seven birdies to take the early lead in Italy.

Whether Stenson’s resurgent form will be enough to sway Harrington remains to be seen. This is the penultimate event for European qualifying, with the captain due to make his third wildcard picks after next week’s BMW PGA Championship.

Harrington has already strongly suggested – on multiple occasions – that he’s likely to pick Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter. That leaves several notable players potentially vying for just one spot, with Stenson suddenly in the mix along with Bernd Wiesberger (who could qualify automatically over the next two weeks), Robert MacIntyre, Victor Perez and Justin Rose, among others.

At the moment, only Viktor Hovland and Shane Lowry would be rookies on the European side, so it's unclear whether Harrington needs yet another veteran presence. Stenson has played on each of the last three European teams (and five overall), amassing a career mark of 10-7-2. He went 3-0 as a captain’s pick during the 2018 Ryder Cup.