He is hamlet in spikes, the brooding prince of Danish golf. As a rookie in 1996, Thomas Bjorn became the first of his countrymen to win a European tour event and, last year, the only Dane ever to play in a Ryder Cup. Impressive accomplishments, but this year a star has been bjorn: the 27-year-old is the Euro tour's only two-time winner. Rarely has a player come so far so fast while having to deal with so much. Already this season Bjorn has had to weather a stormy breakup, a subsequent whirlwind engagement to a different woman, some bad seafood and a galling snub by the pooh-bahs at the Masters, who invited the 23 other Ryder Cuppers but somehow overlooked him. That's not an easy thing to do, considering that Bjorn is 6'2�" and has the kind of on-course flair that often reduces the European press corps to calling him the Dashing Dane.
"This has been a great year, but crazy," Bjorn said last week during the Benson and Hedges International at the Oxfordshire Golf Club in Thame, England, where he tied for third, four strokes behind winner Darren Clarke. "So much has happened, it feels like the season should already be over, not just beginning."
Bjorn is looking forward to the three remaining majors, for he's ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Clarke, Jesper Parnevik, Lee Westwood and the other emerging young Europeans as they brawl with their American counterparts on the world golf stage. "He has got the will to win, which you love to see," Colin Montgomerie says of Bjorn. "There's no question he's a potential major championship winner."
Big dreams are nothing new to a kid who grew up a golfer in a country largely indifferent to the sport, in a small city named Silkeborg in the lakes district of western Denmark. Bjorn took up the game at six, but his hero was not an imported American glamour-puss, but rather his mother, a crack five handicapper, and especially his brother, Soren, four years his senior, who would go on to earn All-Southwest Conference honors at Baylor. Because of the age difference, the brothers were their favorite playing partners, not cutthroat rivals. "People always ask me how Thomas got such a good short game," says Soren, who lives in Dallas and is the chief operating officer at Unimark Foods. "There was a big bird feeder in our backyard, and we used to stand on either side and see who could lob the most balls into the tub. We would be there for hours."
Thomas didn't share his brother's love of letters and, instead of opting for college in the States, sharpened his game with the Danish national team. In 1990 and '91 Bjorn won back-to-back national amateur championships and the following year turned pro. He spent three seasons ripening on the Challenge tour in Europe, which is the equivalent of the Nike tour in the U.S., winning four times in 1995 and earning a promotion to the European tour.
Bjorn's rookie year was highlighted by a reputation-making performance at the Loch Lomond World Invitational in Glasgow. Heading into the final round, he was tied with a similarly inexperienced Frenchman, Jean Van de Velde, four shots clear of the field, but the real pressure came from trying not to disappoint the citizenry of Denmark, which, thanks to Bjorn's exploits, was showing die first signs of golf fever. Before Bjorn, you could count all of Denmark's sports heroes on the fingers of Mordecai Brown's pitching hand: 1996 Tour de France champion Bjarne Riis and the soccer-playing Laudrup brothers, Brian and Michael. The morning of die final round at Loch Lomond, Brian Laudrup, a winger with the Glasgow Rangers, had a note taped on Bjorn's locker that summed up the day's magnitude. "You are good enough to win—now go and win for Denmark." That he did, using a pair of late birdies to clip Van de Velde by a stroke. The victory helped make Bjorn the Euro tour's rookie of the year and set off unprecedented press coverage back home. "He's treated like our Tiger Woods," says Soren, "though he's too modest to let on."
Bjorn's not-so-modest goal last year was to earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team, and doing so eased the disappointment of not winning again during a solid season that saw him lower his stroke average by almost a shot and a half. At Valderrama, European captain Seve Ballesteros benched his rookie on the first day, but Bjorn was brilliant when given the chance. During the second day's four-ball matches, he teamed with Ian Woosnam to whip Brad Faxon and Justin Leonard 2 and 1. It was during his only other match, the Sunday singles, that Bjorn wrote his name in lights. Paired against the tenacious Leonard, Bjorn lost the first four holes but battled all the way back for a crucial halve.
Despite his fine play, Bjorn was not assured of a tee time at Augusta National. He got word that he would not be playing in the Masters just before the start of me season-opening Johnnie Walker Classic, in January, and he let his clubs speak for him. Paired with Woods for the first round, Bjorn shot a 67 (to Woods's 72) to tie for the lead. Unfortunately, that night he ate what was later described in the British press as a dodgy prawn and literally staggered to a second-round 81. Bjorn was feeling better by die following week's Heineken Classic in Perth, Australia, where he really made the Masters' brass look bad. On one of the tour's toughest tracks, the Vines, he beat his friend and mentor, Woosnam, by a stroke in a tense head-to-head matchup. "I've sent my message to Augusta," Bjorn said after the tournament.
Bjorn's game is better suited to more exacting courses. "He's built for the U.S. Open," says Sweden's Per-Ulrik Johansson, a Ryder Cup teammate. Bjorn's upright, elegant swing produces some of the truest drives in the game, and he's murder with his long irons. "I like the kind of golf where you have to minimize your mistakes, not shoot 25 under to win," he says. Not that Bjorn doesn't have firepower. At last month's Open de Espa�a, he shot a blistering 21 under to trump his playing partner, Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal, who had been hell-bent on winning his country's most prestigious tournament for the first time.
The victory lifted Bjorn out of the rut he had fallen into following the Heineken, a lull during which he had played in only three of seven events, missing a pair of cuts and finishing 35th in his only times out. "I had such high expectations after that win; then suddenly everything went down the drain," he says.