Exclusive with Europe's new Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn

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Thomas Bjorn has been named as the main who’ll try and reclaim the Ryder Cup for Europe in France in 2018.

The Dane earned the vote of a five-person panel to get the captaincy, succeeding Darren Clarke, whose team lost 17-11 at Hazeltine National in October. The defeat marked the first time the Europeans had lost since 2008 in Kentucky. However, the Europeans haven’t lost a home game since 1993, when Tom Watson led the US side for the first time in Ireland.

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“It’s a huge honour for me to be named European captain for the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris,” Bjorn said. “This is one of the greatest days in my career.”

Bjorn is the first Scandinavian golfer to lead the European Ryder Cup team, taking the position after a Ryder Cup career that began in 1997 at Valderrama. The Dane was also on winning European teams in 2002 and 2014, totaling a 3-4-2 record. He’s also been a vice-captain, doing so in 2004, ’10, ’12 and ’16.

He’s also been a prominent voice on the European Tour's Players’ Committee, and earlier this year, John Huggan caught up with Bjorn for a wide-ranging and fascinating interview about his career... 

At this stage of your life and career, what does the future hold?

The playing side always takes precedence. I intend to play as long as I can. I actually had a very interesting conversation with Paul McGinley about this. He loved being Ryder Cup captain, an administrative role, but he was adamant I should play as long as I want to and feel able to. When you get to my age, you can’t go off and do something else for eight months then come back to playing. That’s not happening. It’s hard enough to keep up with all these youngsters playing full-time.

Does this mean that playing is still your priority?

It is, but with the tour going through some interesting times at the moment, I’ve had a lot going on off the course too. But all the tough bits are behind us in terms of the changes at the top. I had a great relationship with George O’Grady and the people around him. So I’ve found some parts of the change really difficult. I was very fond of George. But with the new generation of players coming through change was needed. The young guys need to see that the tour is moving forward and that it is going to be a viable option for them in the years ahead.

What has been the most difficult part of your job?

The hardest part for me has been that, so often in this game, personal relationships come before business decisions. As a player it is difficult to realise that the opposite can be true too. In the business world, the business has to come first. I’m not used to that. So there was so much in me that was sad to see George go. But I understand we have an obligation to our young players. It’s a fact of life that any business that is not moving forward is going backwards.

What is the future goal for the European Tour?

Our aim now is to create a loyalty towards the European Tour. I honestly felt that was disappearing. The feeling I grew up with was almost a thing of the past. When I first got my card, we had great players in Ian Woosnam, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Jose Maria Olazabal. In all of them there was an underlying pride in the tour even though they had their battles with officialdom over the years. They still wanted the best for the European Tour.

That sort of pride was disappearing a little bit. Our top players are so determined to win majors – and three of those events are in America. And the PGA Tour is such a fantastic package it is hard to resist. So all we hear from them is “I must get to America.” Everyone is using us as a stepping stone. I’ve felt for a long time that we need to bring back more loyalty to our tour.

It’s difficult to compete with what America has to offer the players these days, though, isn’t it?

Look, I understand they all need to play in America. They have to compete against the best. I get that. But there has to be a balance. I want our best young players to become as good as they want to be, but I also want them to understand the role the European Tour can play in their careers. I want them to want to be here. I want them to come back and be a part of what we have to offer. It is working, too. Over the last 12 months, the response from our top players has been unbelievable. They have been brilliant. Rory, for example, has been a massive supporter.

How important is he to you going forward?

Very important – and he knows that. But he has really shown the way forward in how to deal with it all. He has to look after himself and he needs to look after his career. But he feels at home here. So it is up to us to create an environment in which he can spend as much of the year as possible. When he is here I want to feel like he is a big part of the package we offer to sponsors and what we are as a tour. The next few years are going to be really interesting. I am feeling a pull in that direction. But I still want to focus on playing. 

It is noticeable that you have been struggling a little with your own game, though, right?

That’s true. I have had a few private issues to deal with off the course and that has been really difficult. The last 18 months – since the Ryder Cup – have been tough for me personally. It has been hard to spend enough time working on my game. But I feel like I’m turning a corner with that and able to rededicate myself to practise.

Is it unrealistic to think you will play in another Ryder Cup, given where you are in the world rankings?

It would be extremely difficult to make another one. But I live in hope that I’m the next Jimenez (laughs). I’d like to think I can keep playing on Tour until I am 50.

You still have the short game, which is key.

Yes. Miguel showed the way on that. Jay Haas did the same. So it is not impossible. And I still feel like I am capable of competing on tour. Not every week though. There are certain courses where, even if I play out of my skin, scraping into the top-10 is about the best I can hope for. That was not the case 10 years ago.

Then again, there are still enough courses where
I know I can compete. So I have to think a little harder about my scheduling going forward.

Has your role off the course prevented you going to America as much as you might have over the years?

No. My scheduling and the way I want to play have always come first. I’ve always played in the events I have wanted to play in America. I have never compromised on that. My contact with George on tour-related matters was always intense when it was happening, but there might be three-week gaps between chats. With Keith (Pelley) it is different. We are talking almost every week, albeit for shorter periods than I did with George. That is easier for me, to be honest.

Has there been any downside to your heavy involvement in tour politics and business?

The downside is that I can be distracted from my golf at times. Some people will come to me with questions when I would rather be hitting balls, for example. But
I have always been strong enough to say ‘no.’ I can put on a face that says, ‘don’t come near me.’

You’ve done that to me once or twice.

(laughs) That’s true. The range does seem to be a place where people feel they can approach you and do whatever they want. But for me it is a place of work. If I were to go into someone’s office and look over his shoulder while he was working he probably wouldn’t be too pleased. So there is a time and place for everything.

My manager, Guy Kinnings, long ago said something very telling about me. Back when I first took the chairmanship of the tour committee – and I was in two minds about doing it – he told me that it was the best thing I could do. In the job I would find out all the things I spent time trying to find out anyway. So I would be better off actually knowing all that was going on. When I have that I can concentrate on my golf. And he was right.

I must admit I do like to know what is going on. Darren Clarke gives me stick about it. But that’s fine. I actually deal with a lot more things than most players know I deal with. I enjoy all that though. It’s the sort of thing that drives me to want to continue to work in the game after I’m done playing.

You must be better in your role than when you started. What do you bring to the job?

When guys come to me with stuff, I’m very good at sorting out what is important and what is not. Everybody has opinions and ideas. But not all of them work in the real world. I’m good at sifting through all that and explaining to people why things won’t work. Top players tend to have ideas that would work for them, but not for the rank-and-file players.

Can you give us any examples of what you mean?

I don’t like to put out stuff like that. But a lot of it has to do with scheduling. What suits a top player tends not to suit a lower-ranked guy. The top players like to have the bigger events close together in chunks. But the other guys tend to want them spread out more. So it’s always a balancing act. I always have to remember that I have to look after No.100 as much as the No.1. 

The reality, of course, is that the No.1 drives the tour. More is going to be done for that player because we are in a professional sport, which is not a democracy. But, at the same time, I want every member of the tour to know they are valued. You never know where the next top player is going to come from (smiles).

 

Which of your on-course attributes best transfer to your role as chairman?

I’m not sure about that. What made me the player I am is my will to succeed. I’ve had a lot of obstacles in my path. But I have always been determined to put them behind me. That is still the case. I know how much work I have to put in to play at the level I need to play at. And I still have the will to put myself through all that.

What I am good at off the course is having the conversations, then driving my opinion forward until it is explained to me that it doesn’t work. I need that explanation though. Until then, I won’t accept anything less than 100 per cent certainty that the alternative is the way to go. In other words, I need to understand everything at every stage of a process.

There are so many issues not dealt with properly in the game of golf today. We don’t have a proper media platform, for example. I don’t think we drive our relationships with the media well enough. We’ve had a great relationship with the UK golf media, but we don’t drive ourselves outside that. I’d like to see more continental journalists at our events.

What else do you believe needs to be improved?

We need to be better at creating a product that is more widely attractive. Our Tour Productions is set up well, but it could be better. We have a great relationship with Sky Sports. We have a great relationship with the Golf Channel. But do we have a great relationship with many of the other stations showing our product? Probably not. We have a tour that is shown all over the world so we need to look after all aspects of it, not just little areas of particular importance. In other words, those who pay us the most. I also always feel like we were a step behind with things like social media, although that is fast improving I know.

Your media team seems to take the view that they are there to help the journalist do their jobs better, whereas the PGA Tour’s media department seems to think it is there to ‘protect’ players from the media? 

That’s not the right way to go about it. But there are other things I see and want to change. Slow play is killing the game at every level. It’s killing the product we are selling. It is very difficult for TV producers to make it look good when it is so slow. We shouldn’t be the ones who are following others in trying to stamp out the bad stuff. We should be the ones setting the agenda.  

Do you see shorter events in the future, a bit like cricket has done?

I don’t think we need to change the format. But I do think we need to teach people that golf doesn’t have to take as long as it now does. We should never forget we are in the entertainment business. Yes, we as players are out there to make money. But as a tour and as a product, we have a duty to look beyond any individual player. We are there to deliver birdies and fantastic shots. We are there to deliver a product people want to watch. If we do that, the sponsors will come to us. But slow play makes all of that very difficult to achieve.

Take me through the next three years. Where do you want to be playing-wise and where do you hope the tour will be?

I’d love to still be playing. I think I’m good enough to do that. I’m only 45. But I think I’m done with winning a major. Eighteen months ago I still had that dream.
I had a really good year in 2013. And I made the Ryder Cup team, which is not easy to do at any age, never mind when you’re in your 40s.

So is playing until you are 50 a fair target?

I believe it is. I’d like to be like Miguel [Angel Jimenez]and be competitive into my 50s. Then I can transition into senior golf, if that is what I want to do. Right now, I’m not sure about that.

Is there a Ryder Cup captaincy in your future too?

That’s not for me to decide.

And the Tour in three years’ time?

I’d love to see South Africa, Australia, Asia and Europe join forces to create a viable alternative to playing in America. I don’t think it is possible to create a 45-week schedule that is equal to America. That would be extremely difficult. But I think we can create a very sustainable alternative for the player who doesn’t want to live in America.

We have a few guys who go to America and live there. But we also have others who go and come back here to live at home. The lifestyle is different over there. Personally, I love it in America but it is not for everyone. We need to cater more for those guys.

Could you ever see yourself in Keith Pelley’s job?

No. I don’t think it is a job for a golfer. You have to be seriously educated in business to fill that role. But I do think there is a place for ex-players within the business. There is a lot of inside knowledge there that can help. You need golf-savvy as part of the overall mix – and the businessmen in charge of the brand would be mad not to tap into that.

But no, to do Keith’s job requires experience I just don’t have. It’s too big a beast to deal with. There is so much to deal with.

Looking back on your career, have you met your expectations?

I’m far beyond the expectations I had when I started. When I got my card I felt like winning on tour might be too much to hope for. So to have won 15 times on the European Tour is amazing.

There are a few Danes on tour now, but you were really one of the pioneers from that country.

That’s true. I was on my own a lot to start with. But my expectations changed as I developed as a player. When
I look back, I could and should have done more. I should have won a major, for example. If I had known how good I was when I was 20 then I probably would have won a major. But it took me until I was in my 30s to realise I could play with the best players in the world.

When I look at the players coming out today, their knowledge of how good they are is amazing. They go straight out there and compete. I didn’t have that same belief at the same stage. I didn’t have that kind of support, or I suppose too many players to measure myself against in Denmark. It was almost like there was a feeling that I wasn’t that good and everyone was pulling me back instead of urging me to go on. But that has changed. I see the young Danes coming out and they are a lot more prepared than I was. Which is great.