Exorcising his golfing ghosts

Thomas Bjørn revisits the par three that cost him the 2003 British Open

As this article is published, many of the competitors in this yearÂ’s British Open will be getting ready for a good night’s sleep, or at least trying to, ahead of the start of golfÂ’s third major tournament of the year on Thursday morning.

Among the early starters, teeing off at 08:25 CET, is this country’s greatest ever golfer, Thomas Bjørn, but should he play as badly as he did in the first round of the Scottish Open last week (a 78 in which he dropped five shots in three holes from the second), there’s every chance he will have blown his chances before most golf fans sit down to lunch.

Sometimes in sport things were meant to be. Just over a week ago the world number 80’s chances of starting were slender. As the sixth reserve he needed to either qualify at the Scottish Open or for six players to drop out. It seemed unlikely. However, by last week on Friday five had done just that, leaving Bjørn with an anxious wait over the weekend to discover if he would play.

His prayers were answered on Monday when it was confirmed that FijiÂ’s Vivay Singh was withdrawing.

And then there is the history. This weekÂ’s Open is being played at Sandwich in southeast England on the Kent coast – a course forever imprinted on the furrows and rivets of the DaneÂ’s mind. The last time it hosted the tournament, he stood on the 15th tee of the final round with a three-shot lead. What followed was one of the most spectacular meltdowns in the tournamentÂ’s history.

Bjørn insists to this day that he did not choke. “From outside I can see why people use the word ‘choke’ about the Open,” he recently told Press Association Sport.

“But I can say 100 percent that from the inside I don’t think I did. I know what it is to choke [at the 2005 European Open he finished six, eleven, six]. I think all golfers have had a situation where they can’t handle the pressure for some reason or another.”

Most of the damage was done at the short 16th where Bjørn found the sand and needed three attempts to find the green. “I was guilty maybe of trying to play too perfect under the circumstances,” he recalled.

“You play the Open defensively a lot of the time and I think subconsciously I tried to hit it closer to the flag on 16 instead of just into the middle of the green. But I pushed it. I was not panicking or anything and when I saw where it was in the sand I felt that with 17 and 18 to come I had to try to get up and down. Once it came back in my footprints I was in trouble. I did well to make five in the end.”

Many forget that Bjørn played the fewest shots that week but received a two-stroke penalty in the first round for grounding his club in the sand. And that the eventual winner Ben Curtis also imploded over the final four holes. Unfortunately for Bjørn, he had done just enough. 

Another person who recalls the day with remorse is Billy Foster, BjørnÂ’s caddie. “I walked the course at about 7am for my reckie and on the 16th I put a big cross in the middle of the green, for Thomas to aim 15 yards left of the hole,” he told British newspaper The Independent. “I looked in that bunker and there was more sand in it than any other bunker on the course. It just had nightmare written all over it.”

Standing on the tee his heart was in his mouth. “His swing just got a little bit short, he got slightly ahead of it and it set off straight for the pin. I was screaming ‘No!’ when the ball had only gone 20 yards.”

Bjørn’s first bunker shot was “six inches” short of being perfect, his second rushed. “I didn’t have time to get over to him,” remembered Foster. “But I got over for the third and it was a bomb-site. He did well to get up and down. I honestly thought he might take 10.”

Bjørn is one of four Danes taking part this week. The others are world number 44 Anders Hansen, Thorbjorn Olesen (122) and Lucas Bjerregaard, the 2010 European Amateur winner. Given Denmark’s naturally windy conditions, its best chance of producing a major winner has to be in the British Open, where the venues are invariably links courses built on sand dunes next to the sea where a good understanding of playing in the wind is essential.

While Bjørn, who is now 40, came agonisingly close to ending Denmark’s wait, it is surely only a matter of time before another chance comes along.

The Copenhagen Punt

Final round punt | As tempting as it might be, the best time to place a golf bet – last month’s US Open proved the exception of course – is during the final round. Study the body language: who’s swinging freely and who’s looking the most relaxed. Winners play with rhythm – like they know victory is theirs. But don’t dilly-dally – your best chance of backing a promising outsider is if you bet on him while he’s still three or four off the pace. I remember that when I bet on John Daly in 1995 at 8s after three holes, I just couldn’t see who could beat him.
Back them if in contention

Ian Poulter proved in 2008 that he has the game and temperament to win The Open – he just needs the opportunity.  Angel Cabrera tends to be remarkably composed if in contention.

Avoid if in contention | KD Choi doesnÂ’t know how to cope with the pressure. World number one Luke Donald and Lee Westwood tend to flatter to deceive in the final rounds of majors. Only consider them if theyÂ’ve been in contention all week.

The Danes | While Thomas Bjørn is probably a little short at 250/1, Anders Hansen is worth consideration at 200s – which quite frankly is an insult to his world ranking. He’s enjoying his best season ever and should feel fresh after taking some recent time out to concentrate on his bid to win the European Tour. With that in mind, this is the only major this year (he didn’t bother with the US Open) that he’s interested in doing well at.

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