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Little-known Olesen shows he belongs in round with Woods

Tiger Woods and Thorbjorn Olesen, 2012 British Open Royal Lytham and St. Annes
Simon Bruty / SI
Thorbjorn Olesen shot 71 on Saturday, and his playing partner, Tiger Woods, shot 70.

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- On Saturday evening, Thorbjorn Olesen was telling a cluster of reporters about his round with Tiger Woods when Woods himself strolled into the interview pavilion behind the 18th green at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. Olesen, a 22-year-old Dane, has a nice story -- he’s in seventh place after 54 holes, and he just played a round with his golf idol -- but where Woods goes, so goes the media. As the 14-time major champion mounted a platform on the opposing side of the tent, reporters and cameramen scurried to him as if he were making the place rain with $100 bills. Poor Thorbjorn was left to dangle like a stood-up prom date in a Srixon cap.

Olesen gets it, though. He knows the power of Tiger Woods. Olesen remembers being glued to the TV, watching Woods win the 1997 Masters. He was 8 then. A few years later Olesen traveled from Denmark to the British Open at St. Andrews, where he got his first glimpse of Woods in the flesh. Woods decimated the Old Course that week and won by eight. So if you had told young Thorbjorn then that 12 years later he would play alongside Tiger in a British Open, you might have guessed the Dane’s reaction.

“I would have laughed,” Olesen said Saturday after a one-over 71 that left him seven strokes off the lead. “I never would have expected it.”

But there they were on a balmy afternoon at Lytham: the most famous player in the field paired with one of the most anonymous.

“The most nervous I’ve ever been,” Olesen said of the walk to the tee at the par-3 first.

It showed. Olesen caught his opening shot off the toe and yanked it into a bunker. He saved his par, however, and after a couple of early snafus began to find his groove. Perhaps because he’s a professional golfer, and perhaps because Tiger ... well, if Woods didn’t exactly open up to Olesen, he didn’t shut him out either.

On the seventh hole, after Woods and Olesen both bombed perfect drives, the conversation started to flow.

“We were talking a little bit about the coast and where we were staying, when he got here, and a few other things,” Olesen said. “He’s a really nice guy, and I really look up to him. It was nice to have a chat with him.”

A chat with Woods? In the heat of competition? Woods, never one to shower his opponents with compliments, even hit Olesen with the occasional “Nice putt, dude.” (Thor, next stop is the inner-circle, dude!)

As for those tee shots at 7? “I’m quite proud,” Olesen said. “I hit it further than Tiger. Now I can always say I hit a drive longer than Tiger.”

Make no mistake. While Olsen played the ga-ga-for-Tiger card well, saying all the right things and paying all the proper homage, he had other things on his mind on Saturday. Like, for instance, trying to win the claret jug. The kid’s no slouch. In December 2010, as a rookie on the European Tour, he tied for second in the star-studded Alfred Dunhill Championship. Six months later, at the BMW Italian Open in Turin, he tied for second again, thanks to a 10-under 62 on Sunday. Olesen finally broke through with a win at the wind-whipped Sicilian Open in April of this year. (That means Olesen can play in the wind, and that’s important because 30-mile-per-hour gusts are forecast for Sunday at Lytham.)

He’s a soccer nut, splitting his allegiances between FC Copenhagen and Manchester United. And with his low baritone, Scandinavian accent, and long-ish hair, he calls to mind a young Bernhard Langer.

Olesen is sharing a house this week with his manager, a few other players, and two personal chefs, whom he planned to utilize on Saturday night. (“I’m starving,” he said after his round.) His father is the only family member who traveled with him, but Olesen says he has felt the support of the Danish fans in the galleries. On Sunday, he will go off in the fourth-to-last pairing with Bill Haas, hoping to somehow, some way bring Denmark its first major title.

It’s a long shot, but who knows what could happen if the wind howls, a few contenders stumble, and Olesen can just sink a few nice putts, dude.

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