02 Feb 2017

Thomas Bjørn to Bring Back the Ryder Cup

It came as no surprise to the golf world when Thomas Bjørn was announced Captain of Europe’s 2018 Ryder Cup team. Having spent ten years as Chairman of the European Tour Tournament Committee he had demonstrated his strength of character, his wisdom and his total commitment to the Tour and become one of its most invaluable assets. His involvement as a Ryder Cup player and vice-captain also made him a convincing candidate for the job.

 

Understanding of the Ryder Cup

Bjørn understood the intensity of The Ryder Cup as a 26 year old rookie the moment he and Ian Woosnam defeated the reigning Open Champion Justin Leonard and Brad Faxon in the Saturday morning fourballs at Valderrama in 1997. Bjørn went on to halve his Sunday singles match with Leonard to contribute further to Europe’s one-point victory. There began the first chapter of the Danish debutant’s Ryder Cup story.

After earning two more Ryder Cup team appearances plus four vice-captaincy appointments, the 45 year old has finally reached the summit. The competitive edge still lingers within the 15-time Tour winner, despite back problems that have plagued him in recent years. Yet in 2014 he produced some of his finest golf to win on the European Tour, triumphing at the Nedbank Golf Challenge, 18 years after his first Tour victory at the Loch Lomond World Invitational in 1996. Bjørn’s career got off to a blistering start in 1995 on the European Challenge Tour, racking up four  victories, the first of which came at the Himmerland Open in his native Denmark. The promise of that impressive 12 months came to fruition further into the 1990s. He followed his maiden European Tour win in Scotland and then reeled off six more European Tour victories between 1998 and 2002.

 

4 Mar 2001: Thomas Bjorn of Denmark receives the trophy from Sheikh Mohammed after victory in the Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates GC in Dubai. Mandatory Credit: David Cannon /Allsport
Thomas Bjørn the trophy from Sheikh Mohammed after winning the 2001 Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club

Defeating Tiger Woods

It was in 2001 when Bjørn dominated the sports headlines around the world in defeating Tiger Woods at the Dubai Desert Classic in an epic final round duel. Bjørn commented: “At the time of winning it was certainly my biggest win on the European Tour and to beat Tiger down the stretch, having played with him in all four rounds when he was enjoying the best form of his life, is something I will always remember and treasure.

“I’m pleased that Tiger is playing the Desert Classic this year. He’s still one of the most powerful influencers in golf and wherever he decides to play there’s always going to be a positive effect on the tournament. Tiger took the game to a different level, which led to others raising their game and I’m excited to see how he gets on.”

Although Major Championship success has so far eluded Bjørn, a tie for second at The 2000 Open Championship at St Andrews could be fairly explained by a young Tiger Woods running away with the title by an eight shot winning margin.  His pursuit of the Claret Jug led to a heartbreaking encounter with a greenside bunker at Royal St George’s in 2003. A double-bogey at the 16th on Sunday opened the door for Ben Curtis to claim the trophy and consigned Bjørn to another share of second place.

 

“I get asked about that bunker a lot,” says Bjørn, “but I always say the same thing – I played great that week and put myself in a great position to win but it didn’t quite happen.’ That’s the nature of the game and it’s why we play it.”

 

Web Bjorn St george bunker
Bjorn faced with ‘THAT’ bunker shot at Royal St.Georges!

 

63 History maker

However, Bjørn entered the Major record books courtesy of a 63 at the 2005 US PGA Championship. No one has bettered a round of 63 in a Major, although 28 others have matched it. His share of history wasn’t enough to beat Phil Mickelson to the Wanamaker trophy. By that point Bjørn had already cultivated the vice-captaincy skills that would be used as a trusted foundation by three future Ryder Cup captains. Acting as one of Bernhard Langer’s right-hand men at Oakland Hills Country Club in 2004, Bjørn helped oversee Europe’s crushing 18.5 – 9.5 victory. Ahead of The 2010 Ryder Cup, Bjørn, acting as Vice-Captain for the second time, was in no doubt as to what was required from a second in command. “I think you need strong people, you need people who the team respects,” he said. “When they walk in a room they almost give a captain’s feeling.”

 

Ryder Cup demands

As a player, Bjørn is as competitive as ever yet well aware of the demands of Ryder Cup captaincy. “Throughout my career I’ve seen my game go through a few changes which have partly come with age,” he says, “but until very recently I’ve still managed to get the results I’ve wanted and I find it hard not to focus on my game and care about how I’m playing. It’s been my job for more than 20 years so to just stop competing isn’t going to happen. Having said that, I’m taking The Ryder Cup role seriously and it’s an honour to captain Team Europe!

“I’ve worked with four Ryder Cup captains in my time on the Tournament Committee and over the years as a player and vice-captain, so I have an idea of the sort of things I want my vice-captain’s to bring to the table for next year, including experience, knowledge, communication and passion. In terms of wild card picks, I think the new rules will play into our hands because we’ll now be able to counteract a player doing well somewhere else in the world by having an extra pick.

“I’m looking forward to Le Golf National in Paris. Not only have our guys played the course over the last few years at The French Open, the home advantage is also going to be a huge factor for us. The crowd is like the 13th man in the team and the French crowd will be particularly strong, especially if a Frenchman were to qualify for the team!”

 

SUTTON COLDFIELD - SEPTEMBER 28: Tiger Woods of the USA with Thomas Bjorn of Europe during the morning foursome matches on the second day of the 34th Ryder Cup at the De Vere Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England on September 28, 2002. (Photo by Stephen Munday/Getty Images)

Gym balance is key

Asked whether the younger players are over-emphasising the importance of the physical side of golf, Bjørn replied: “It’s definitely something for the guys coming through to think about and I’m sure their respective trainers are making sure they get the balance right. The sport has clearly gone in the direction of the gym being important to the game but the interesting thing is, what works for one golfer, doesn’t always work for another. It isn’t an exact science. Each player has to find out what works for him and, in theory, anyone can still compete on Tour, regardless of how much gym work they do.”

As a former Chairman of the Tournament Committee for 10 years Bjørn is aware of the innovations being introduced, such as music on the driving range. “It was really interesting to see the sort of things that companies like HSBC are trying to do to bring the sport to newer audiences and engage with them a little bit more at an event,” he says. “There are so many ideas coming out on what will get the younger generation into golf, from playing fewer holes to playing to zones on greens and even speeding up play, but I genuinely don’t know the answer. As a player, if we are able to start the ball rolling by inspiring the next generation with something we do on the course, or by giving back via a junior clinic, then, hopefully, they would be ideas that would appeal to the kids.”

 

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 31: Tiger Woods of the USA and Thomas Bjorn of Denmark on the driving range prior to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on January 31, 2017 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

16 years after their Epic battle in the 2001 Omega Dubai Desert Classic Tiger and Bjorn are reunited once more on the range at Emirates Golf Club.

Middle East swing success

On the subject of Dubai as a possible future Ryder Cup venue Bjørn says: “It’s amazing to see how golf has grown, not just in Dubai, but in the Middle East as a whole, and how well established the Middle East Swing has become as one of the strongest sections of the European Tour season.

“I guess, you couldn’t rule out hosting the Ryder Cup in Dubai as there are no rules to say you can’t host it outside of Europe but there are still quite a few countries, including those in Continental Europe, who I think would love to host the event, too.

“As a Dane I’d love for Denmark to one day host a Ryder Cup. As far as the 2022 Ryder Cup goes Italy were deserving of having the opportunity to host the event. The Italian bid was extremely strong and I can’t wait to see The Ryder Cup being played there in 2022.”

Thomas Bjørn’s Ryder Cup Captaincy has been many years in the making. Yet it is universally accepted that his experience and leadership qualities will serve Europe well. There couldn’t be a better time for Bjørn to face up to his greatest challenge yet.

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