With an impressive career on the course and in the European Tour boardroom, the Dane has the perfect credentials to lead Europe in the 2018 Ryder Cup. In an exclusive interview, he highlights the big challenges he faces in the role and how he plans to get
In the first of a new series, John Huggan goes head to head with one of the game’s key figures. First up, Europe’s new Mr Captain.
O n his good days – of which there are many – Thomas Bjorn is one of the best interviews in golf. Opinionated. Intelligent. Interested. Rounded. The 46-year-old Dane ticks a lot of boxes, the latest of which is his appointment as the next European Ryder Cup captain. Only the fourth continental citizen to be given the job, Bjorn will next year lead the Old World into the biennial battle with those pesky colonials at Le Golf National just outside Paris. It is a role which his intellect and temperament suit perfectly.
Speaking of which, Bjorn can also be, when the mood darkens and those distinctively bushy eyebrows furrow, one of the worst interviews. Fortunately, I don’t have too much experience on that front. Over the course of many chats, I have only rarely left disappointed by the quality and depth of the responses. Although there was one rather spirited conversation a few years ago that included the phrase, “if you ever speak to me like that again…”
Happily, this interview was a convivial affair. In the wake of fulfilling a dearlyheld ambition, Bjorn was in fine form, his answers thoughtful, consistently considered and fascinating. Europe has a strong leader – a commanding man and one who, through force of personality and the quality of his career, will have the respect of his players.
JH: So, on paper, you are the most qualified Ryder Cup captain ever… TB: Why is that? You’ve been an assistant captain umpteen times and you’ve played in three. No one else can say that.
I suppose I do bring some experience to the captaincy, but you can say that about everyone who has done the job. We’ve all seen things done wrong and done right. The thing is, though, the Ryder Cup today is a completely different animal than it was when I played for the first time or even when I was assistant the first couple of times.
What has changed over the years?
Twenty years ago it was basically just your 12 players. Now there are coaches, caddies, wives and girlfriends. It’s a much bigger package. If you don’t understand what makes the players tick, or what is right for them, the job is very difficult. If you haven’t done your preparations beforehand; if you haven’t made your plans – and you need a lot of those – you are in trouble. You have to know how to treat each individual. You need to know what is happening with them all. And you need to see the week through their eyes. If you can’t do all those things, you can’t do a good job.
What examples can you cite of how players need to be treated differently?
With some of them you can be very direct. Understanding what they are like, you can go up to them and say, “This is what I want from you. This is what I need.” Those guys are fine with that. They will just run with it. Then there are others you just can’t be direct with. You have to create scenarios where they do whatever it is you want automatically without them knowing you actually set up the scenario. To do that, you need to “work” the people around them more than you “work” the player.
That must come into play when you tell people they are not going to be playing?
Yes. But you have to prep that very early on. I’ve always had the attitude that I was okay with playing once or five times. I always played for the team, not myself.
How did various captains handle telling you the bad news?
They were all different. One of the great
‘THERE ARE ALWAYS PLAYERS IN THE TEAM THAT YOU CAN’T BE DIRECT WITH’
things Seve did with me was tell me on Thursday I wasn’t playing the next morning… and that I might not play in the afternoon, either. But he wanted me to get there in the morning, get a feel for what was going on, hit a few balls, play a few holes, then sit with him on his buggy. I had been on tour maybe 18 months at that point. And I got to sit on a buggy with Seve at the Ryder Cup! That was a huge boost. I was able to take it all in. When the time came, I was able to play.
Sam [Torrance] was different. He made it clear to myself and Darren [Clarke] how important we were to the team. We were both playing really well at that time and we were a massive part of it. I didn’t play Saturday afternoon. I was tired and I told Sam. I was honest with him. We had very open and honest conversations.
Paul [McGinley] was different again. We were both surprised I was there as a player, but he was great. He laid out his plan for me very early. And I think he did that with most guys. He never told me what to do. My biggest problem at Gleneagles was that I had been a vice-captain so many times. It was very difficult to go from concentrating on 12 players to just concentrating on myself. But we were aware of that. Paul never let me get involved in any of the talks. All I had to do was play. It was hard for me, though.
It sounds like you have already put a lot of thought into this?
My notes at home could fill a small book five times over. I write down everything – things I think are right and wrong. Things pop up all the time in conversation. My 13-year-old son could tell me something I thought was a good idea, and so could the best players in the world. I believe in forming my own captaincy, even if the matches are really about the 12 players. My job is to make them comfortable and ready to play well.
Did you have your eye on the Ryder Cup captaincy for a while?
Not really. I have always wanted to do it but Celtic Manor in 2010 was the first time I felt like I could do it well. Monty let me in a lot on the inside of what he was doing. From there, I felt like I could do it without ever assuming I was going to get it.
But didn’t we get to the stage where you would have been hurt if you didn’t get it?
There was certainly talk that I was going to get it. But I never let myself get ahead of the announcement. I had a plan when we left Hazeltine for what I wanted to do with the job if I got it. And I had another plan for what I would do if I didn’t get it. I knew what I was going to do with my golf and my life if I wasn’t going to be captain. But I knew that if I didn’t get it this time I probably wasn’t ever going to get it.
It would have been hard for the tour to explain if you didn’t get the job.
Yes, but a few things played into my hands. The first was Padraig [Harrington] saying he didn’t want it. That turned things on its head. Second, Miguel [Angel Jimenez] had gone to America to play senior golf. And I had four vice-captaincies to Paul’s [Lawrie] one. All those things went in my favour.
If Padraig had said he wanted it, though, there would have been a battle for the job. It would have been different. But he made it clear he wants to play in the next one – which is great. Having said all that, I still didn’t want to assume anything.
The changes to the qualification system made perfect sense. Was it a tough sell to the European Tour membership?
The general membership, at times, has a hard time understanding the rule on the minimum number of events you have to play to be a member of the European Tour. They tend to drive themselves on quite a big schedule. Most of them play between 25 and 30 events a year. But the top players drive themselves on much smaller schedules because they play on another tour.
The drop from a minimum of five events to four – which was more of a tour decision than a tournament committee decision – was the right thing to do. For the tour, that is. If you haven’t played at the very top level, I think it is hard to understand all of that. I must admit I was very worried that such a long list of changes was going to be difficult to get past the tournament committee. But they were great.
Why did you opt for more captain’s picks? That was your decision, right?
It was really to counteract the decision to make no Ryder Cup points available in tournaments played opposite the European Tour’s “Rolex Series” of events. If a couple of guys played extremely well in America in
‘IF PADRAIG HAD SAID HE WANTED IT, THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN A BIG BATTLE FOR THE JOB’
those weeks, then I would have a problem. I totally get that the Rolex events are designed to drive the tour forward. We need them to be successful. And we need to encourage our best player to play in them.
Having said that, in my 10 years as tournament committee chairman my attitude was different. With my captain’s hat on my responsibility is to get the best team. That is my number one concern.
Darren’s captaincy was marked by the names of Russell Knox and Paul Casey. Are you going to be proactive in trying to avoid the same thing happening again?
I’m not singling out anyone who plays on the PGA Tour. I have to look at everybody. As captain, I want them all to be members of the European Tour and so eligible for the Ryder Cup. My experience tells me there is always someone who comes from nowhere and plays great. You can have a guy returning to form after a slump, or you can have a new superstar on the way up. So those conversations are being had, not just by me but by the tour. We are very active in talking to people about being members.
Will you speak to guys like Paul Casey specifically? I’ll throw a name out there even if you won’t.
(laughs) There are others who play mostly in the States – guys like Russell Knox and David Lingmerth. They are both members. And they are members for a reason. Maybe it is only because they want to play in the Ryder Cup. Or maybe it is because they just want to be members. To be honest, that is not my concern. But yes, I will have to talk with the guys who are not members.
I can only ask, though: “Do you want to be a member or not?” If someone says they don’t want to because they have a life in the States and don’t want to travel, there is nothing I can do about that. I don’t have any sympathy for the argument that it is “Europe” versus the “United States”. That goes out the window. We (European Tour) run the Ryder Cup and do all the work. It is a product we need to look after. Besides, it isn’t a big ask for anyone to be a member.
If I’m, say, a 37-year-old Englishman married to an American and with a young family in Arizona, I could join and be eligible?
(laughs) Who are we talking about? No, every player has to make a decision for themselves. I always say this. If a person makes a decision in his life for reasons that nobody else can control, you have to respect that. People live their lives in the ways they want to. I respect that, too. I’m never going to say to anyone that they have to join. If they don’t want to, then they don’t want to.
So all I can do is try to come up with the best way of getting the best 12 players available in France. But yes, I would love to see all of them as members of the European Tour. Of course I would.
Do you think your chances of getting the 12 best players are better now? The last team was not the 12 best players.
I don’t want to judge the last team. But with this system I have the best possible way of identifying the 12 best. It’s important to realise that the world of golf is constantly moving and evolving. And it moves in different directions. We didn’t have World Golf Championships. Then we did. Now we have a Rolex Series and a Finals Series. And the PGA Tour has a FedEx Cup.
Things move and different things become important in a player’s world. We have to be able to adapt to those kinds of things. If the Ryder Cup is to remain the pinnacle of what we do outside of the majors, we have to have a system that drives towards that aim. But you can’t just rip everything up from one day to another. You can’t change everything all at once.
So there was no feeling of panic within the camp after Europe lost for the first time in a while last year?
My initial thought was that just because we lost it didn’t mean everything was wrong. But when I started looking at it all and thinking about it, I realised that times were moving on. We needed to look after the tour and its products. I had 10 years as chairman of the tournament committee. Now I have a different job, but I will not disregard my decade as chairman. It is not the right thing to do.
But there is an inherent conflict in the two roles, though.
There is. But I believe you can do both. And make them both work. I honestly believe we will get the best possible team. It’s no good telling me about guys who are not members. I can’t control that. I can only control what I can control.
is the reliance on the Ryder Cup to such an extent in financial terms a dangerous road for the European Tour to go down?
That has changed. That is what it was. But with the Rolex Series, we now have two things driving the tour. The Rolex Series is very important for the tour.
And there is a reason other than playing in the Ryder Cup for the big guns to be a member of the European Tour?
Yes. Keith Pelley talks of wanting the European Tour to be a “sustainable
alternative” to the PGA Tour. I’m not saying we are ever going to get away from people playing in the States. That’s fine. But we are more and more offering an alternative to the guy who doesn’t want to travel. For whatever reason. And if the Rolex Series grows to maybe 10 or 12 events, it becomes a very real alternative.
I’m sure you have an idea on who your assistants will be. How many will we see?
I like the idea of having five. It works well. There are lots of very good, in-depth conversations. There are eyes on all the players at all times. That is key.
What skills and experience do you most want from your assistants?
I will want different things from all of them. I need to cover all the bases. I need them to provide me with different things. For example, I want an analytical guy. And I want a passionate guy. But I am conscious I am asking active players to give up their time. The first time I did the job in 2004, the team had already been picked when Bernhard [Langer] asked me. I basically jumped on the plane. Now it is different. I need certain things from all of them.
Have the days of someone becoming a Ryder Cup captain without first being an assistant gone?
Not necessarily. Someone who has been a player could easily go straight into being Ryder Cup captain. But I would also say that being an assistant first is definitely helpful. You see so much in that role, things you never see when you are playing.
Has the European Tour done a good enough job of picking continental captains over the years? You could argue there has been a bit of British/Irish bias?
Paul McGinley is probably the one who broke the mould. Sam Torrance and Mark James both played in a lot of Ryder Cups. And Mark played a big role as tournament committee chairman. But Paul came after a line of great players. From 1997 to 2012, the captains all came from a great generation of golfers. But Paul was different. He was a massive part of the centre of the tour. And he brought to the table a very different, more thoughtful captaincy. He changed the view that you didn’t have to be a major champion to do the job well. One of Paul’s greatest assets was that he never told anyone to do anything. That’s how it felt anyway.
A lot was made of how Hazeltine was set up. How far will you go in setting up Le Golf National to suit your players?
You can put too much thought into that stuff. It’s a fantastic course. And it deserves to be played in the way it should be played. I will think about it more the closer we get to the matches. It depends on who is in the team. But I like the course the way it is. It is great for match play with all that water. So I like where we are in that respect.
How important was/is Seve’s passion for the Ryder Cup, in terms of selling the event to continental Europeans?
Seve brought everything to golf that hadn’t previously been in golf. He was flamboyant. He was hugely charismatic. He was cool. He made it cool to play golf. And he was a magnificent player.
How important was that to guys like yourself, the next generation of continental European players?
I had two big idols growing up – Seve and Nick Faldo. The fascination for me was how different they were. Faldo played a narrow game, Seve played a wide game. But they were both great and I was able to take things from both to make me the player I became. Eventually, of course, you find out that you have to be you.
Seve’s passion for the Ryder Cup lives within the team room. It is not something you can create artificially, but it is our responsibility to make sure it lives on. All you have to do is put a picture of him on the wall and everyone gets goose-bumps.
Golf is not just what happens today and tomorrow. Golf is also what happened back in time. We live our history even as we create new history. And we have a responsibility to make sure that never changes. You hear in so many sports, “Yeah, that was back then and nobody cares.” But in golf we care and we celebrate our great champions. And Seve was one of those champions.
I have been into Arnold Palmer’s office at Bay Hill. For me, that was heaven. There is great sadness when the great ones die. A big part of the game is that we understand our history and where we come from.
‘PAUL McGINLEY BROUGHT A MORE THOUGHTFUL CAPTAINCY TO THE TABLE’
Larking about with predecessor Darren Clarke.
Wrapped in the Danish flag, Bjorn celebrates with Paul McGinley at Gleneagles. Bjorn was, by his own admission, a surpise player on the 2014 Ryder Cup team.
With Lee Westwood, Nick Faldo and Darren Clarke on his Ryder Cup debut in 1997.