COLUMBIA — When former South Carolina golfer Justine Dreher needed an exemption to get into a professional tournament in Sweden, Gamecocks associate head coach Puggy Blackmon knew exactly who to contact.
Henrik Stenson, now British Open champion.
“The next morning, she was in,” said Blackmon, also USC’s director of golf development and facilities.
Stenson won his first major title Sunday, topping Phil Mickelson in epic one-on-one battle in the final round at Royal Troon in Scotland. But the Swede is no stranger to the golf program at South Carolina, which he visited frequently in the late 1990s while his girlfriend and now wife, Emma Lofgren, was playing for the Gamecocks’ women’s team.
Lofgren, also from Sweden, played at USC from 1996-2000, earning second-team All-SEC honors in 1999, and finishing 57th in the NCAA championship that same season. Blackmon was then head coach of the South Carolina men’s team, and said the long-hitting Stenson would spend weeks at a time in Columbia, visiting his girlfriend and often practicing at USC’s home course.
“It was one of those situations where he was turning professional, and they kind of gave him the courtesy of allowing him to play and practice out there,” Blackmon recalled Monday. He couldn’t resist trying to recruit the future European Ryder Cup participant to play for the USC men’s squad.
“It was like, ‘Hey, we would love for you to stay. You’re spending so much time over here anyway, why don’t you just play on our men’s team?’” Blackmon recalled. “He was like, ‘No, I really don’t like school.’ I said, ‘That’s one issue, because you do have to go to class.’ Plus, he had the ability. You knew right away this guy was going to be pretty special.”
Blackmon at the time was also working as swing coach for David Duval, whom he had coached at Georgia Tech, and was one of the top-ranked players in the world. Stenson “was always curious as to what David and I were working on,” said Blackmon, who recognized immediately that the Swede was a huge hitter for the era.
“He was long. He was a bomber,” Blackmon said. “He just had that ability 20 years ago. He was hitting it well over 300 yards back when the equipment and the ball were such that, it was pretty good if you could hit it as far as he could hit it. ... He’s a big kid. He’s not small by any stretch of the imagination.”
Although Stenson never played for USC, the relationships he and his wife made in Columbia remain. Blackmon would often cross paths with Stenson at majors when he was working with Duval. The Gamecocks coach said he also keeps in contact with Lofgren, whom he recently sent a South Carolina golf bag.
“She still loves the Gamecocks, and we still stay in touch,” he said.
Stenson’s breakthrough Sunday was delivered by a 10-birdie 63 that tied for the lowest final round ever by a major champion. Lofgren embraced her husband after a 20-foot birdie on No. 18 clinched a three-stroke victory over Mickelson. Watching back in South Carolina, there was no question who Blackmon was rooting for.
“You’d just been waiting for this to happen, although maybe not to this degree,” he said. “I’ve known Phil a long, long time, but I had to pull for Henrik. That was just a perfect round of golf, against somebody playing a perfect round of golf.”