The Great Dane

This is a story of redemption. This is a story about taking the long view in the face of catastrophic failure. This is a story about believing in yourself no matter what.

Deserved or not, Thomas Bjorn once had a reputation as a player with a flawed character. It began with two unfortunate holes in two separate tournaments two years apart.

The first was the par-3 16th hole at the British Open in 2003. He hit the front right of the green, but its redan design inexorably sucked the ball off the green and into the greenside bunker. At one point, he had a 4-shot lead. But by the time he got to the 15th, it was down to 3. And he made bogey. So he had to bear down.

Trying to hit too delicate a shot from the bunker, it got to the crown of the side of the green…and then rolled back into the bunker. His body language said it all. He tried the same delicate shot and got the same result…except for one thing: the ball rolled back into his footprint. His body language didn’t change.

So he played a plugged-lie splash shot to about six feet and made the putt for a double bogey. And then he bogeyed the 17th and lost to the ultimate winner, Ben Curtis, by one shot.

It was such a cataclysmic, psychological blow that when he returned to Royal St. Georges in 2011, everyone who understood what it had meant had their eyes on him and that 16th hole. Adding to the drama, he had just lost his beloved father. Could he handle all of this? (He birdied it the first day, parred it the other three and finished 4th by himself in the brutal conditions of the weekend.)

The other hole came two years later at the European Open at the K Club in County Kildare, Ireland. Bjorn began the final round with another 4-shot lead. But by the time he got to the 17th tee, the field was back in it and he needed to make something happen.

The 17th hole bends left around the River Liffey. Because it was such a long carry to cut the corner, it’s a tough driving hole because you need to be long, straight and have your nerves in check.

But Bjorn didn’t. He blew three consecutive tee shots into the river, made an 11 on the hole, a bogey on the 18th and shot an 86. It was an ignominious 86 in the minds of those who think they could have done better. Failure on the big stage of professional tournaments is not a private affair. But most of the critics never played the game at that level and had no idea of the incredible pressures elite players have to contend with.

But the players do. Quoted in The (U.K) Telegraph, Jean Van de Velde, author of his own collapse in the British Open at Carnoustie in 1999 said, “All the debate, all the words that are written, no one can really understand what it’s like to do what Thomas has done and what I have done. You have to have been in that situation.”

And in terms of moving on, “What can you do?,” he said. “You can stay at home and never open the door or you can face adversity and try again. And if you keep putting yourself in the same position, eventually you are going to win. Freaky things aren’t always going to happen.”

But Bjorn had saddled himself with a reputation as…fragile. Coupled with the British Open debacle, even his win just a month and a half before in the Dunlop Masters couldn’t stave that off. Nor did the Irish Open win the following year. Nor the winless year in 2007…and 2008…and 2009. He finally won the Open de Portugal in 2010 by five shots. That was some relief for him, but it was also in a tournament whose winners’ exemption onto the European Tour had been halved to just one year because their €1 million purse was below the €1.5 million purse threshold. In other words, not only was his win a little noticed event here in the U.S., it wasn’t such a big deal in Europe either. But he did end his four-year winless drought. There was that.

But then he won the Qatar Masters in February of this year. That was enough to get him high enough in the world rankings that he got into the WGC – Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, Arizona. But when I first saw his name in the brackets, I wondered how he had gotten there. And then when I saw that he was paired with Tiger Woods, I assumed that he would be one-and-done.

When I finally saw him in person, I was surprised at how big he was. At 6’ 2½” and 194 pounds, there was an unexpected mass to him, clearly the reason he bears the mantle of “The Great Dane.” And although it was quite cold, I was also surprised how ruddy he looked after years of European Tour golf. And I was equally surprised to see him consoling Woods in defeat on the 19th hole. It gave me a whole new appreciation for Thomas Bjorn. Although he lost in the next round, he had clearly evolved into a golf pro’s golf pro.

It took him all of the rest of the year until he won an exultant five-man playoff last week at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles in Scotland.

And then a funny thing happened yesterday; he won again at the Omega European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre in Crans Montana, Switzerland, by shooting a meteoric 62 in the final round. As a measure of just how meteoric, he had two bogeys and still shot 62. He won by four. Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer were not only in the field, they were in serious contention.

He’s a long way from where he was to now being a 3-time winner, with back-to-back wins and moving back into the world’s top 30.

“At the end you think nothing can go wrong,” he said. “Golf seems easy sometimes and you have to remember that when you are not playing well.”

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