Thomas Bjorn has a chance in Paris to change the way he’s remembered within the game. Holding the Ryder Cup as victorious European captain could replace the other scene for which he might be remembered: taking three shots in a bunker on Royal St. George’s 16th hole that cost him a chance at major glory in the 2003 British Open.
It’s a tribute to the Dane’s strength of character that he rebounded from his St. George’s letdown. But then we’re talking about one of the strongest characters the European Tour has ever seen.
Eight of his 15 wins came post 2003. Fifteen wins – not bad for a guy who at 18 hoped “to win a tournament on the European Tour.”
“I’ve certainly achieved a lot more than I ever dreamed I’d achieve.” Bjorn said. “Of course, once you get past the first achievement you want
to achieve more.”
He has, and can go much farther in Paris.
Maybe more amazing is that Bjorn has managed to win tournaments while serving an important administrative role for the European Tour. He took over from Jamie Spence as chairman of the tour’s influential tournament committee in 2007 until he stepped down in 2017.
It made him arguably the most powerful player on the European circuit. Every major decision the tour made over 11 years needed Bjorn’s approval. He has the respect of the tour’s stars and its rank and file. You won’t find many Bjorn critics on European Tour practice ranges.
“People don’t realize how tough it is being chairman,” Spence said. “I struggled to play and do that role, and it showed. I couldn’t play. The fact that Thomas has been able to win while taking on that responsibility tells you about his strength of character.”
Bjorn won six times during his tenure as chairman, despite having to deal weekly with players complaining about locker rooms, food in the players’ lounge, transportation and a plethora of other – usually trivial – issues, often within minutes of him stepping to the first tee.
There are few players on the European circuit who would want to tangle with the 47-year-old. He won the 2001 Dubai Desert Classic despite playing all four rounds with Tiger Woods when Woods was in his prime. He once faced off with Ernie Els, literally, over changes Els made to the West Course at Wentworth. He lambasted Colin Montgomerie for a breach of etiquette during the 2004 Johnnie Walker Classic. Bjorn backs down from no one.
‘He’s very strong … and will do things his way’
“He’s very strong willed and will do things his way,” said Paul McGinley, the 2014 European Ryder Cup captain. “He’s used to dealing with players from his years as chairman. He’ll have no problem managing different personalities in the team room.”
Age has tempered what was once a fiery disposition that earned Bjorn the nickname “Semtex,” after an explosive. His nostrils seemed permanently to breath fire in his early days on tour.
“I’ve had my moments with people,” Bjorn said. “With me it’s five to 10 minutes in the heat of the moment and then I’m over it. I’m also good at getting back to people and getting it ironed out.”
The man from Silkeborg, Denmark, was a natural choice to lead Europe at this Ryder Cup, aside from his years as tournament committee chairman. He played on three European teams and served as vice-captain for three matches.
He brings the same organizational skills to the captaincy as he showed in his chairmanship.
“I’ve been very strong in my opinion that I want all the stuff in the background done so I don’t need to think about that, and I can just concentrate on the players,” he said.
There was slight pressure on Bjorn to pick a French vice-captain – Jean Van de Velde or Thomas Levet – because host-country France won’t have a player in the match. Bjorn was having none of that. In May he appointed Luke Donald, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood vice-captains to join the already-named Robert Karlsson.
“I’ve been somewhat selfish in my announcements as vice-captains,” Bjorn said. “I’ve been thinking about what’s right for me and the team. A good captain will surround himself with people that he gets good advice from. But I make the decisions.”
The Dane knows more than most how important the Ryder Cup is to the European Tour. It’s the cash cow that keeps the tour running. The tour works on a four-year financial cycle. It loses money in non-Ryder Cup years and makes money in Ryder Cup years, especially when it hosts the match. Bjorn will do everything possible to make sure Europe wins.
“There’s nothing in it for us if we don’t have that trophy on Sunday night,” he said.
It’s an evening that could change his legacy in the game. Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Golfweek.)