ROCHESTER, N.Y. — I’ll never pick another Swede to win a major.
I say that now, 30 minutes after Jason Dufner’s winning tap-in at the 95th PGA Championship. But the guys on either side of me in Row E of the press tent remind me that I said the same thing a year ago, having finally lost faith in Robert Karlsson after a decade of picking him to win every major (and quite a few minors).
Okay, sure, I broke my promise. But this time I didn’t consciously pick a Scandinavian. I was sitting on a camera platform outside the Oak Hill clubhouse on Saturday evening — as people do — when Golf Magazine’s Jessica Marksbury asked me to look into the camera and pick a winner. Typically unprepared, I started to express my faith in the semi-retired and majorless Steve Stricker, but I had one of those “senior moments” and couldn’t remember his name. Thinking quickly, I threw my support to Henrik Stenson, knowing that he had been ranked as high as fourth in the world, had won the 2009 Players Championship, and had finished second to Phil Mickelson in the most recent Open Championship.
My pick of Stenson was promptly endorsed by CNN’s Shane O’Donoghue, sitting on my right, so I didn’t feel like a fool. It wasn’t until the lights had been dimmed and the crew was packing up that it hit me: I had picked another impressive-looking Swede.
You know the rest. Stenson shot an uneventful final-round of par 70 to finish third, a stroke ahead of 24-year-old Jonas Blixt — another Swede! — but three behind the distinctly un-Swedish Dufner. When last seen, the tall and powerful Stenson was struggling to cram his black travel bag into the trunk of his courtesy car.
So here’s how things stand. I’ve picked a sunburned blonde person to win something like 41 of the last 44 majors, and I’ve done so knowing that no Swedish male has ever won a major. The guy who came the closest was the volcanic-sand-eating Jesper Parnevik, who was runner-up in two Open Championships, including the one he handed to Nick Price at Turnberry by failing to check the leaderboard before going for birdie on the final hole.
Baffled by this record of tantalizing but trophyless talent, I have turned to experts in the field. Johan Hampf, the education director of the Swedish PGA, tells me that the answer probably isn’t golf-specific, but has something to do with his country’s social-democratic political system. “The Swedish mentality is a little bit different,” he says. “Swedes tend not to want to stand out too much. We’re hiding in the group.”
Really? Parnevik, the son of Sweden’s top comedian, drew stares with his tight trousers and flipped-up cap brim. Stenson did him 10 better by stripping to his skivvies and golf glove to extricate his ball from a muddy pond at the 2009 WGC-CA Championship. If those guys are shrinking violets, I’d hate to see a Swedish extrovert.
Hampf clarifies his point by saying that it’s not a question of shyness; it’s about not putting on airs or waving foam “No. 1” fingers in the American manner.
“We don’t like to say, ‘I’m the best,’” he explains. And that can be a problem for professional athletes, who are expected to, you know, try to win. Hampf adds, “The good side of being laid back is being open to ideas. It’s thinking ‘I need to learn more.’ Because it’s so complex to get someone to perform a motor skill well.”
Actually, Swedish golf coaches have become quite proficient at enhancing motor skills. They do so with innovative coaching, exploiting more holistic pedagogies in the pursuit of low scores and — dare I say it — major titles. Their biggest successes, however, have been with women golfers — most notably Annika Sorenstam, who won 10 LPGA majors, shot a tournament round of 59, and scared the Good Ol’ Boys by playing in a PGA Tour event. But there was also Liselotte Neumann, who won the 1988 U.S. Women’s Open, and Helen Alfredsson, who won 23 times as a pro on both sides of the Atlantic, including a major, the 1993 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
That ’93 Kraft Nabisco, I remember, was a breakout win for Alfredsson, who had fashion-model looks, a blithe indifference to convention and a charming gift for Swedish profanity. Later that summer, when Alfredsson looked like she might win the U.S. Women’s Open in Carmel, Ind., I called my editor in New York on a Saturday evening. I told him clear the Sports Illustrated cover. I said, “Helen Alfredsson could be bigger than Nancy Lopez.”
The next day, the vivacious Helen shot 74 and finished T2, a shot behind the relatively unknown Lauri Merten, who hadn’t set foot in the interview room all week. And who wasn’t Swedish.
I should have learned from that experience, but obviously I didn’t. Now I say it loud and clear: “NO MORE SWEDES!”
Although that Blixt kid looked pretty sharp today.