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Bjorn Back to his Best

Thomas Bjorn's return to form fascinates Dermot Gilleece

Posted Sep 06, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

thomas bjorn 2

Over the last two weekends, Thomas Bjorn struck a hugely significant blow for golf’s often disenchanted practitioners.  Indeed it is difficult to grasp that this is the same player whose future in the game was seriously in doubt seven years ago.  Memories of harrowing events from the competitive arena simply don’t seem to fit with images of trophies held aloft by the gifted Dane. This is the player who, seven months past his 40th birthday, has added successive victories in the Johnnie Walker Championship and Omega Masters to a fine win in the Qatar Masters early last February.   

Golf, Bobby Jones once observed, is a game played on a five-inch course: the distance between your ears.  No player has lent more credence to those words than Bjorn, who brings sharply into focus the true nature of a notoriously demanding pursuit. And he makes you wonder how much money it takes to compensate for being ripped apart emotionally, often in full view of a largely uncaring public.

Memory remains fresh of the Smurfit European Open in early July 2004 and Bjorn’s later recollection of a horrendous opening day at The K Club.  Standing on the first tee, he had the eerie sensation of seeing the fairway shrink before his very eyes and the green become "no bigger than the hole".  "Why," the tortured Dane asked himself, "am I feeling like this?  Why do I have 500 thoughts running through my head when I should be thinking one shot at a time?"

By the sixth hole, he was four over par and in no state to continue.  That was when the tournament director, David Garland, came to his rescue and drove him back to the clubhouse in a buggy.  The only coherent explanation Bjorn could offer the waiting media was that he was "fighting demons" and felt "unable to face the tournament situation".

He played only three further tournaments between then and the end of August, missing the cut in two of them.  And by way of acknowledging his plight, Ryder Cup skipper, Bernhard Langer, invited him onto the backroom team for what proved to be a highly successful European venture at Oakland Hills.

Against this background, it would have been easy to imagine his rehabilitation being taken a significant step further, when he appeared to bounce back with a runner-up finish to Ernie Els in the lucrative American Express Championship at Mount Juliet a month later.  Indeed he seemed set fair for a return to competitive brilliance in 2005.  

Those signals gained real emphasis in May of that year when, in the Dunlop Masters at the Forest of Arden, Bjorn gained his first European victory since 2002.  And it came the hard way, after a three-way play-off with David Howell and Brian Davis.  As it happened, Davis dropped out on the first hole of sudden-death, down the par-three 18th, and when Bjorn and Howell played it again, this time in a duel for the title, the Dane’s par was decisive.  

False dawns, however, are very much a part of these sort of golfing situations, especially when the subject is so openly emotional.  Just when it appears that the way forward is mapped out with morale-boosting clarity, the horizon is darkened once more by ominous clouds.  So it was that on his return to the Smurfit European Open at The K Club the following July, Bjorn’s demons returned with a vengeance.  With the tournament at his mercy, he proceeded to finish with unimaginable figures of 6,11,6 en route to a disastrous 86 which sent him crashing down to a share of 33rd place while handing victory on a plate to England’s Kenneth Ferrie.

Given these experiences, the rock-solid determination which characterised Bjorn’s win in another play-off at Gleneagles, was hugely admirable. And that he could be similarly resolute against a quality field at Crans-sur-Sierre, further illustrated his indomitable spirit.

It could be said that tournament golf has transformed the life of Bjorn and his ilk into one of serious wealth and privilege.  But it should also be noted that these rewards often come at a price. Which makes Bjorn’s latest successes all the more fascinating.

- Dermot Gilleece

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