SANDWICH, England – Where do you turn when the rock you’ve leaned on for so many years is gone? Where do you hide when the world’s spotlight swings in your direction? Where do you find peace when you’re surrounded by demon of deeds past?
For Thomas Bjorn the answers came with each of his 65 swings on Thursday at Royal Wind Whipped. From the moment the Dane arrived for his opening round long before the sunrise broke over the White Cliffs of Dover something was different.
“On the range this morning he was very quiet, which is unusual for Thomas,” said his swing coach Pete Cowan. “You could see it on the course when things wouldn’t go his way. Normally that would cause him problems, but not today.”
Not on Thursday, not on this golf course, not even with the ghosts of Opens past swirling about in the cold, wet wind.
When Bjorn’s 9-iron tee shot at the par-3 16th hole soared into the gale and settled within 8 feet for birdie he smiled sheepishly. As he is quick to point out golf owes no one anything, but it was impossible not to score one for karma. For the second consecutive round he’d stepped to Royal St. George’s 16th tee with a two-shot lead, but this time he signed for a 2. This time was different.
Not that Bjorn has any interest in living in the past and for good reason. He’s an “old” 40 with more peaks and valleys in his career than St. George’s first fairway. For nearly a decade he’s been defined by what transpired on the English coast in 2003.
There was the misplayed tee shot at the 16th hole on Sunday, followed by two unproductive swipes to exit a greenside bunker, which resulted in a double bogey, a standing three count or so it seemed. From there his game, if not his mind, spiraled into a deep, dark place.
A year after his St. George’s snafu, Bjorn walked off the golf course during a round at the European Open. He said he was “fighting demons at the moment” and has been ever since.
By 2008 he’d dropped all the way to 195th in European Tour earnings and his best Open finish since ’03 was a tie for 41st in ’06. “I’ve been very uncomfortable on the golf course for a long time,” he said on Thursday.
Whether his prolonged slump and the collapse at St. George’s in ’03 were mutually exclusive, Bjorn couldn’t say. Nor did it really matter. Bad golf, whatever the culprit, is difficult enough without unwanted self analysis.
But then Vijay Singh’s aging back began acting up and Bjorn, an Open alternate, was told to be ready to play. He arrived on Tuesday, played just a single practice round and committed himself to toeing the line between unrealistic expectations and the psychological trap doors that awaited him when he made his first trip back to St. George’s since ’03.
“It’s tough for him coming here,” Cowen said. “You think, do you want to come here? But it’s like falling off a bike.”
For Bjorn it was a no-brainer and considering everything he’s had to deal with in his career maybe a return trip to Sandwich is just the tonic he’s been looking for.
It also helps that his game had been starting to come around this year. He served as one of Colin Montgomerie’s vice captains in 2010, won the Qatar Masters in February, defeated Tiger Woods at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, and was well on the path to a comeback when his father, Ole, died in May.
It was a particularly painful blow for Bjorn who was asked what Ole would have made of his Thursday 65 and at the time, his one-shot lead. The often stoic Bjorn paused, tried unsuccessfully to gather himself and finally managed a simple and emotional, “He would have been very proud of what I did today.”
Bjorn’s news conference felt more like an intervention, each question cutting deeper into a fragile psyche.
“I never really expected to play so there’s no reason to get too uptight,” he reasoned. “Today was a massive step in the right direction for me because mentally I was very strong on the golf course and that seems to be the problem.”
At this pace Bjorn may be a problem for the rest of the wind-whipped field. In theory, he soared atop the leaderboard from the “bad side” of the draw, with Thursday’s forecast windy in the morning with calmer conditions as the day wore on. It’s a truth that didn’t escape those playing catch-up.
“That's exceptional. That won't be caught, I promise you that,” said Mark Calcavecchia, who posted an opening 69.
For the day Bjorn had seven birdies and two bogeys, at Nos. 9 and 18, with just one birdie putt over 12 feet. Heady stuff considering he opened his charge in 2003 with a 73 and yet was in complete control through 67 holes. And he could have been even further ahead had he not suffered a two-stroke penalty at the 17th hole in the first round after grounding his club in a bunker.
Early Thursday as Bjorn and Cowen began their work day the swing coach noticed a line of flags rippling in the cold wind, a reason for some to stay in bed but not Bjorn.
“I tried to remind him on the range this morning, you need to remember in Qatar the wind was horrible and you played fantastic,” Cowen said. “He plays his best golf in the wind.”
Bjorn didn’t find the answers to all the questions that regularly swirl about his busy mind, and true redemption comes on Sundays, not Thursdays. But there was no escaping the idea that he may finally be asking himself the right question.
“I never let my mind wonder. I’m quite proud of that,” he said.