NEWPORT, Wales – Thomas Bjorn was a mess for a year after the 2003 British Open. His state of mind was so bad he couldn’t wait for the ’04 championship to finish.
Ben Curtis won the ’03 British Open at St. George’s, the only player to finish under par for the four days. However, most remember it as the Open that Bjorn lost. Three shots to escape a bunker on the 16th hole in the final round cost Bjorn the chance to become the first Dane to win a men’s major.
His double bogey on No. 16 was sandwiched by Bjorn’s bogeys at 15 and 17. He tied for second with Vijay Singh, one shot behind Curtis.
No wonder his mind was in turmoil.
“Until the Open at Troon (in 2004), I was a mess,” Bjorn said. “I think getting that Open out of the way helped. Just as guys are Open champions for a year and have to live up to it until the next one comes around, I had lost the Open and had to live with it until the next one before I could move on. It was hard to deal with.”
No one was surprised with Bjorn being on the brink of a Claret Jug. After all, he was runner-up to Tiger Woods at St. Andrews in 2000 and third at that year’s PGA Championship. He also had seven European Tour victories at the time, played the 1997 Ryder Cup and was as high as No. 10 in the world (July 2001).
He was no journeyman pro, but he had overachieved.
Denmark doesn’t have a long tradition of producing great golfers. Hockey and soccer are the country’s main sports. Before Bjorn, Anders Sorensen and Steen Tinning were the only two Danish players to make any sort of impression on the European Tour. Sorensen never won, and Tinning won twice after Bjorn’s first title.
Bjorn turned pro in 1993 with modest hopes.
“My dream was always to win a tournament on the European Tour,” said Bjorn, who represented Denmark on the 1992 Eisenhower Trophy team. “Growing up in Denmark, nobody had done it, so the European Tour seemed this far-away thing. Getting on the national team was a big thing, but it wasn’t seen as a steppingstone to success.”
Bjorn, now 40, realized his dream might come true when he won four times and topped the money list on the 1995 European Challenge Tour.
“I felt there was still a step to take, but I felt that if I could play like that on the main tour then I could make my way,” Bjorn said.
His breakthrough victory came at the 1996 Loch Lomond World Invitational.
“It all went so quickly for me,” Bjorn said, “because if you come out here and don’t do so well, then you might start to wonder if you’re really good enough. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of players. I never got in that frame of mind.”
The Dane’s journey through European golf has been nothing short of remarkable, considering the explosive nature he brought to the European Tour.
This is the man who was known as “Semtex” in the early days. Bjorn has curbed his temper but is still volatile at times. He publicly criticized Ian Woosnam when the 2006 European Ryder Cup captain overlooked him for a wild-card pick. Bjorn later apologized to Woosnam.
“With me, it’s five, 10 minutes in the heat of the moment, and then I’m over it,” Bjorn said. “I’m also good at getting back to people and getting it ironed out.”
Bjorn also has had his off-course troubles. While Tiger Woods’ infidelities were much-publicized, Bjorn’s marriage also came under strain when he was named as the father of a child from an affair with an Australian flight attendant. Unlike Woods, Bjorn’s marriage survived.
That background doesn’t sound like the ideal resume for someone who arguably has become the most influential player on the European Tour. In 2007, he was named chairman of the tour’s 15-man tournament committee.
“I’ve always had a strong interest in the tour, even though I’ve got quite close to the bone at times,” Bjorn said.
“A lot of people questioned if it was the right move for my career, but I want to know what’s going on. It’s much easier for me to deal with my golf because I’m not worrying about what’s going on, or what discussions are taking place.”
Jamie Spence gave up the chairmanship because he found it hard to divide his time between competing and dealing with tour pros’ gripes. Yet Bjorn has blossomed in the role. His golf even has improved. Winless between 2006 and ’09, Bjorn has two victories in the past year, including at this year’s Qatar Masters.
He needs to be among the top 5 at this week’s Barclays Scottish Open to have a shot at the British Open.
“He’s a very strong individual,” Spence said. “He’s a perfectionist, but he’s also got that strength of character that allows him to deal with the adversity in his own life and make sure the well-being of the tour is catered for. I’m not surprised he’s been able to win while helping guide the tour through these difficult financial times.”
Talk to anyone on the European Tour and you’ll struggle to find a voice raised against Bjorn.
“He’s hugely respected,” said Richard Finch, who serves on the tournament committee. “Even if an issue were, say, detrimental towards him but in the tour’s best interest, he’d do what was best for the tour.”
Bjorn hasn’t been a major contender since a tie for second at the 2005 PGA Championship – or in contention for the British Open since St. George’s.
However, memories of 2003 will surface later this month when the world’s best gather at Britain’s most southerly Open venue for the game’s oldest major. It won’t faze Bjorn.
“It doesn’t bother me today that I lost that Open,” Bjorn said. “Obviously, I would love to have won it, but it’s not something I think about a lot. It wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable about the situation or felt that I couldn’t handle it. People said I choked, and I can understand that, but I never felt as if I choked.”
Eight years and the death of his 73-year-old father, Ole, have made Bjorn older and wiser.
“I lost my dad . . . and you find out it is only golf, a game,” Bjorn said. “We’re not having the worst of times. So you have to put life in perspective.”
Besides, Bjorn has rediscovered his love for the game after years of traveling to events and not wanting to be there.
“I knew that at my best I’m easily competitive with these guys,” he said. “I want to get back to the top 50 in the world. The hunger is still there. I still have a massive amount I want to achieve. I want to give myself a realistic chance of winning a major championship.”
And if he doesn’t bag one of the four marquee events that define a player’s career?
“I got myself in that position at St. George’s,” Bjorn said, “and some people never do.”