He is Hamlet in spikes, the brooding prince of Danish golf. As a
rookie in 1996, Thomas Bjorn became the first of his countrymen
to win a European tour event and, last year, the only Dane ever
to play in a Ryder Cup. Impressive accomplishments, but this
year a star has been bjorn: the 27-year-old is the Euro tour's
only two-time winner. Rarely has a player come so far so fast
while having to deal with so much. Already this season Bjorn has
had to weather a stormy breakup, a subsequent whirlwind
engagement to a different woman, some bad seafood and a galling
snub by the pooh-bahs at the Masters, who invited the 23 other
Ryder Cuppers but somehow overlooked him. That's not an easy
thing to do, considering that Bjorn is 6'2 1/2" and has the kind
of on-course flair that often reduces the European press corps
to calling him the Dashing Dane.
"This has been a great year, but crazy," Bjorn said last week
during the Benson and Hedges International at the Oxfordshire
Golf Club in Thame, England, where he tied for third, four
strokes behind winner Darren Clarke. "So much has happened, it
feels like the season should already be over, not just beginning."
Bjorn is looking forward to the three remaining majors, for he's
ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Clarke, Jesper
Parnevik, Lee Westwood and the other emerging young Europeans as
they brawl with their American counterparts on the world golf
stage. "He has got the will to win, which you love to see,"
Colin Montgomerie says of Bjorn. "There's no question he's a
potential major championship winner."
Big dreams are nothing new to a kid who grew up a golfer in a
country largely indifferent to the sport, in a small city named
Silkeborg in the lakes district of western Denmark. Bjorn took
up the game at six, but his hero was not an imported American
glamour-puss, but rather his mother, a crack five handicapper,
and especially his brother, Soren, four years his senior, who
would go on to earn All-Southwest Conference honors at Baylor.
Because of the age difference, the brothers were their favorite
playing partners, not cutthroat rivals. "People always ask me
how Thomas got such a good short game," says Soren, who lives in
Dallas and is the chief operating officer at Unimark Foods.
"There was a big bird feeder in our backyard, and we used to
stand on either side and see who could lob the most balls into
the tub. We would be there for hours."
Thomas didn't share his brother's love of letters and, instead
of opting for college in the States, sharpened his game with the
Danish national team. In 1990 and '91 Bjorn won back-to-back
national amateur championships and the following year turned
pro. He spent three seasons ripening on the Challenge tour in
Europe, which is the equivalent of the Nike tour in the U.S.,
winning four times in 1995 and earning a promotion to the
Bjorn's rookie year was highlighted by a reputation-making
performance at the Loch Lomond World Invitational in Glasgow.
Heading into the final round, he was tied with a similarly
inexperienced Frenchman, Jean Van de Velde, four shots clear of
the field, but the real pressure came from trying not to
disappoint the citizenry of Denmark, which, thanks to Bjorn's
exploits, was showing the first signs of golf fever. Before
Bjorn, you could count all of Denmark's sports heroes on the
fingers of Mordecai Brown's pitching hand: 1996 Tour de France
champion Bjarne Riis and the soccer-playing Laudrup brothers,
Brian and Michael. The morning of the final round at Loch
Lomond, Brian Laudrup, a winger with the Glasgow Rangers, had a
note taped on Bjorn's locker that summed up the day's magnitude.
"You are good enough to win--now go and win for Denmark." That
he did, using a pair of late birdies to clip Van de Velde by a
stroke. The victory helped make Bjorn the Euro tour's rookie of
the year and set off unprecedented press coverage back home.
"He's treated like our Tiger Woods," says Soren, "though he's
too modest to let on."
Bjorn's not-so-modest goal last year was to earn a spot on the
Ryder Cup team, and doing so eased the disappointment of not
winning again during a solid season that saw him lower his
stroke average by almost a shot and a half. At Valderrama,
European captain Seve Ballesteros benched his rookie on the
first day, but Bjorn was brilliant when given the chance. During
the second day's four-ball matches, he teamed with Ian Woosnam
to whip Brad Faxon and Justin Leonard 2 and 1. It was during his
only other match, the Sunday singles, that Bjorn wrote his name
in lights. Paired against the tenacious Leonard, Bjorn lost the
first four holes but battled all the way back for a crucial halve.
Despite his fine play, Bjorn was not assured of a tee time at
Augusta National. He got word that he would not be playing in
the Masters just before the start of the season-opening Johnnie
Walker Classic, in January, and he let his clubs speak for him.
Paired with Woods for the first round, Bjorn shot a 67 (to
Woods's 72) to tie for the lead. Unfortunately, that night he
ate what was later described in the British press as a dodgy
prawn and literally staggered to a second-round 81. Bjorn was
feeling better by the following week's Heineken Classic in
Perth, Australia, where he really made the Masters' brass look
bad. On one of the tour's toughest tracks, the Vines, he beat
his friend and mentor, Woosnam, by a stroke in a tense
head-to-head matchup. "I've sent my message to Augusta," Bjorn
said after the tournament.
Bjorn's game is better suited to more exacting courses. "He's
built for the U.S. Open," says Sweden's Per-Ulrik Johansson, a
Ryder Cup teammate. Bjorn's upright, elegant swing produces some
of the truest drives in the game, and he's murder with his long
irons. "I like the kind of golf where you have to minimize your
mistakes, not shoot 25 under to win," he says. Not that Bjorn
doesn't have firepower. At last month's Open de Espana, he shot
a blistering 21 under to trump his playing partner, Jose Maria
Olazabal, who had been hell-bent on winning his country's most
prestigious tournament for the first time.
The victory lifted Bjorn out of the rut he had fallen into
following the Heineken, a lull during which he had played in
only three of seven events, missing a pair of cuts and finishing
35th in his only times out. "I had such high expectations after
that win; then suddenly everything went down the drain," he says.
This had nothing to do with his golf swing. After the Heineken,
Bjorn broke up with the woman he had been dating since he was a
teenager. Less than two weeks later, though, he went to the
United Arab Emirates to play in the Dubai Desert Classic and met
Pernilla Waldenstrom, a Swedish expatriate and lawyer who worked
there. They were engaged a month later. "He's in seventh heaven
now," says Soren. "I think he had been in a shell for a long
time, and that affected him."
Bjorn doesn't entirely disagree. "When you're new to a
situation, I think it's important to sit back, observe and learn
all you can," he says. That being the case, expect Bjorn to go
quietly about the business of becoming one of the game's best
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW HARRIS [Thomas Bjorn smoking cigarette]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW HARRIS NEW BLOOD Clarke, who won at Oxfordshire by three strokes, is another rising star in Europe. [Darren Clarke golfing]
"[Bjorn's] built for the U.S. Open," says Johansson, a Ryder Cup