THOMAS BJORN

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

Golf World (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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