SANDWICH, England — Emotions got the better of early first-round leader Thomas Bjorn after he signed for a five-under 65. He has coped admirably this week while reliving the double-bogey at 16 that cost him the 2003 Open Championship here at Royal St. George’s. But when a reporter asked Bjorn about his father, who passed away in May, he had to pause to gather himself.
“He would have been very proud of what I did today,” Bjorn said wiping away the tears. Bjorn could have used that moment to excuse himself, but he stayed to talk about some difficult memories from the 2003 Open. It was a tribute to his character. “I’m always honest with you guys,” he said. “A couple of people asked me if I would rather go home. This is the Open Championship. Where else do you want to be?”
After a victory in Qatar earlier this year, Bjorn’s form has understandably dipped in the last few months. As fifth alternate this week, he qualified after Vijay Singh withdrew early in the week. The affable 40-year-old Dane had been trying to avoid talking about 2003, no doubt fearful of awakening his demons. But his startling 65 in the first round meant he had to face the media for the first time this week. Of course, everyone wanted him to relive not his greatest triumph but his most gut-wrenching failure.
Ben Curtis wouldn’t be an Open champion if Bjorn had done in 2003 what he did at the par-3 16th on Thursday, when he fizzed a 9-iron to eight feet and rolled in the birdie putt. He allowed himself a wry grin when he saw that his ball had just sneaked over a greenside bunker and bobbled down near the hole. “If only,” he must have been thinking.
“That hole owes nobody anything,” Bjorn said. “No hole does. And no golf course does. We all know what it’s like: a bounce here or there and then it goes either wrong or right. And today it went my way. Some days you just pull off the shots you want to.”
But back in 2003 disaster struck on that same hole. Bjorn stepped onto the 16h tee with a two-shot lead in the final round and pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker. He took three swipes to extricate his ball from the sand and that was that. The claret jug went home from Kent, England, to Kent, Ohio, with Curtis.
“People want to talk about that Open because we’re back at Royal St George’s. That’s only natural,” Bjorn said. “It was eight years ago. It’s in the past. I have always been fine with everything I did that week. I played the best golf of my life. And I made a mistake. Things just didn’t go my way. It was almost a perfect 6-iron,but I pushed it a little and it trickled down the slope of the green into the bunker.”
When he found his ball, mental alarm bells began ringing in his head. “It’s hard to imagine ever having to play a tougher shot,” he said. There were loads of sand under the ball and Bjorn was staring at an uphill lie to the flag, which was on top of the slope. “What cost me the Open Championship was I got a little too cute with that first bunker shot and it rolled back into my footprint,” he said. “I knew then I was in trouble. It was a miracle that I made five and not more. It could have been so much more. I tried to win the Open on the 70th hole instead of the 72nd hole. That was my mistake.”
Royal St George’s wasn’t Bjorn’s only near miss at the majors. He was runner-up to Tiger Woods in the Open at St Andrews in 2000 and to Phil Mickelson at the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol.
“I went home from that championship knowing I’ve got the game to win majors,” Bjorn said of the 2003 Open. “Hopefully one day it’ll just fall out the right way. I’ve always promised myself I’ll keep going. People can write you off, but you try to make the best of every single day.
“It was nice to see my name on that leaderboard again all day,” he said with a grin. “I always look ahead. I’m 40 years old and there might just be a little more in me.”