A conversation with Thomas Bjorn is akin to a philosophical debate on golf’s bigger issues, meticulously weighing up pros and cons to every argument he makes. The modern sporting vocabulary of “processes” and taking it “a shot at a time” are eschewed for much more esoteric discussion.
Obsessive tendencies are commonplace in golf. So, it is unsurprising how the Dane, who led Europe’s Ryder Cup side to victory in 2018, has embraced the psychological side of the game with gusto.
Bjorn gives fascinating insights on the difference between his sport’s artists and scientists, with the striking physical transformation of Bryson DeChambeau once again raising the question of whether brain can compete with brawn.
DeChambeau, who goes by the nickname “the mad scientist”, gained 20 pounds of muscle during lockdown and his prowess off the tee makes Bjorn fear for golf’s future. In fact, he feels such brutal ball striking could simply lead to “bland” golf and put iconic courses such the Old Course at St Andrews and Pebble Beach out of action.
“I was much more about flair and feel, but I played with a lot of guys who made great careers by being scientific,” says the 49-year-old, who was influenced by figures such as the instinctive Seve Ballesteros and the more technical Sir Nick Faldo. “But Bryson brings it to a whole new level about being scientific. In my time Padraig Harrington was the one who was a bit more scientific and doing massive amounts of work for little amounts of gain.
“I find Bryson fascinating. I admire somebody who sits down and says ‘I am going to do all of this to give myself the chance to be the best’. The only problem is the length he is hitting the ball now. I fear with the length now, that it makes a lot of golf courses obsolete. That is a problem. Some of the best golf courses in the world are in awkward places that could not be extended. That will create a problem for the game going forward.
“Rory [McIlroy] hits that far too, but with Rory it is more a natural ability than Bryson. None of us have a problem with Rory hitting it a long way off ability but unfortunately it will take some of the greatest golf courses in the world out of play. Then golf becomes bland on big new open golf courses and that is something I fear a lot. I admire Bryson for the work that he does, so it becomes a tricky issue for the game of golf.”
Bjorn also believes that the issue of monster driving could have an economic impact on the sport as DeChambeau has now all his irons at seven-iron length to ensure he maintains the same swing with each club.
“As we develop the game of golf, nobody puts more money into it than the golf club manufacturers. If you scale golf clubs back there is a financial downside and then they in turn won’t put as much money back into golf and it is making it struggle,” says the Dane. “There are a lot of aspects to how you do it [consider DeChambeau’s innovations] and things to think about.”
The way Bjorn reflects on DeChambeau gives an insight into the way his mind works, and also provides an indication as to why his traditional Ryder Cup winning-captain’s memoir is a little different to most. Rather than a blow by blow account Bjorn and author Michael Calvin have written an in-depth work on what makes the mind of a successful golfer tick, with Mind Game shortlisted in the Outstanding Sports Writing category at the Telegraph Sports Book Awards.
It is much more than a reflection on Bjorn’s own experiences as he enlisted many stars from European golf either those he captained in 2018 including England’s Tommy Fleetwood and former team-mates. There is raw testimony from Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer on their struggles in a solitary game where the mind games can become overwhelming and all consuming.
“I sometimes think people are not really geared to be that much in the limelight or that much in the moment the way sports people are now” says Bjorn.
“When I spoke to my parents or my wife at the time or people in my support team where they don’t understand exactly what it is like or what is going through your head, so they don’t have any answers.
“You realise when you start looking at the other players…. When I was working on the book I realised I am not alone in my sport. My perception of people and how strong they are in everyday life, I realised that is just a front. When you get into really telling their stories, there are a lot of underlying issues either what they have already gone through…. Both Henrik Stenson and Tommy Fleetwood realised that you have to hit rock bottom to be able to then re-start. They both are very honest about that in their careers.”
Hearing this it is perhaps no surprise that Bjorn – a diehard Liverpool fan – used the management style of Jurgen Klopp as inspiration.
“One thing I learnt in my Ryder Cup captaincy from Liverpool, was more Jurgen Klopp than the actual club, I wanted to create an environment where the players had a smile on their face,” he says.
“I wanted to create a place where you can have a smile on your face and feel comfortable about who you are and where you are. That is very much how I feel when I watch Liverpool. Even the players on the fringe on the team have smiles on their faces and that is something Klopp does extremely well.”
“I think the players found me very intense on a week-to-week basis and I really wanted to surprise them by making it really laid back and making sure it was all made for them and not how I would want it to be.” A winning formula it would seem for both footballers and golfers.
Mind Game by Thomas Bjorn and Michael Calvin is shortlisted in the Outstanding Sports Writing category at the Telegraph Sports Book Awards. The winners are announced on Wednesday, July 15th
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