Exclusive interview: The former Ryder Cup captain, who endured a bitter collapse at Royal St George’s in 2003, returns to the course that sparked unseen struggles and a long road to rediscovering his love of golf
As Thomas Bjorn drove down to Royal St George’s on Tuesday morning, the perfect sunshine revealed a place that once burnt his very soul. The memories flooded back like the North Sea tide, first of the bunker on the 16th hole that so infamously cost him the Claret Jug in 2003, but then of the last time he returned, too. It was almost exactly a decade ago, after battling through a period of bitter depression, that the Dane received a late invite to The Open. Thrust into horrendous winds and rain on the opening morning, Bjorn shot a round of 65 that propelled him into a first-round lead. “It was like a timeline of being at peace with what happened,” he says. “It was probably one of the best rounds of my career. I was finally able to put a lot of things to bed.”
For Bjorn, the 2018 Ryder Cup captain, who can be both dry humoured and searingly honest, it has been a long and tumultuous road to reach that state of contentment. His life is written permanently into sporting legend and yet few players have reckoned quite so publicly with their own mortality. Having won 15 times on the European Tour since turning professional in 1993, he is unequivocally the greatest golfer in Denmark’s history but, in spite of that success, Bjorn spent large parts of his career in “such dark places”, wondering if he had the will to continue playing at all. That downward spiral unmistakably began in 2003 after he took three shots to get out of the sand and succumbed to a collapse that would cruelly define him for several years.
“You don’t feel the battle scars of what happened straight away and it wasn’t until eight or nine months later that I started to play badly and my mind wondered if it was because of Royal St George’s,” he says. “I would always question things but then the more questions you have, the harder it can be to get out the other side of it. Certainly not winning a major when I had the opportunity was one of those things.”
Before the catharsis of Bjorn’s return to Royal St George’s, those doubts had descended into a kind of torment, draining him almost entirely of joy. “Between 2007 and 2009, I fell out of love with the grind,” he says, in conjunction with William Hill. “I didn’t enjoy travelling, I didn’t enjoy being on tour, I didn’t enjoy playing golf. When you’re a sportsman at a higher level, you sometimes take things for granted. I fell out of love with the hard work.
“I had to have that conversation with myself when you find the truth. In the end I started getting answers to my questions. I wanted to be the child again. I wanted to enjoy playing golf, enjoying being on the golf course. Results weren’t important, it was playing the game and loving being on tour and the range hitting balls and chatting golf. All those things that I’d lost, they came back to me, and then you get on a nice run.”
At 43 years old, Bjorn’s renaissance earned him a place on the 2014 Ryder Cup team. For the players, it can be a strange experience, a sense of unity cutting through the consuming introspection and inevitably self-centred goals. Long before 2003, Bjorn had struggled to balance those feelings of loneliness. “My first tournament victory at Loch Lomand [in 1996], I was shocked by the feeling of winning,” he says. “I came out of the press centre and stood there, the clubhouse was empty, nobody was around, you’re just standing there with the trophy thinking ‘what do I do now?’ The last plane has left, you can’t go anywhere, and you’re left on your own. And you think is that it? Is that what it’s all about?”
It is why he bears no hesitation in calling the captaincy in 2018 the “most enjoyable thing” he’s ever done. Bjorn threw himself into the role at full-pelt, spending 20 months on strategy and gleaning information from every source available, even if his wildcard picks of Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter, Sergio García and Paul Casey were still criticised as “an old pals’ act”. In Paris, they proved anything but and played a decisive role in Europe’s conclusive 17½-10½ victory. The night before Padraig Harrington was announced as his successor, Bjorn called him and gave him the best advice he could offer: “be true to yourself”.
For Bjorn, that’s a guiding principle he’s always followed, no matter what direction it has taken him. “If I look back at it today, there are a lot of things I’d have told the Thomas Bjorn in ’03,” he says. “If I’d never lost my enjoyment, I’d probably never have been in such a dark place as I was. I might be a different person. But all the great players I’ve come across, they’ve all have really dark periods and tough times on the golf course. I think there’s something fulfilling in being in those places and being able to drag yourself out of that.”
And as he returns to Royal St George’s for the third time, in this third act of his life when meaning can be found elsewhere and the disappointment has subsided, does he feel satisfied? “If I look back on my aspirations at 18 years old, I far exceeded any dreams I had,” he says. “I should’ve won a major but I didn’t have that dream when I was a kid. My dream was to be a professional golfer and make a living playing golf. I am content and I’m not content with what I achieved, but it’s a road of life that develops in front of you. But I’m happy. If you’re asking that, I’m happy.”
Thomas Bjorn was speaking in conjunction with William Hill ahead of The 149th Open Championship at Royal St. George’s.