Alive and Kicking
First, the names. If you're going to spend any time with Swedish 27-year-olds Gabriel Hjertstedt (YET-stet) and Patrik Sj�land (SHO-land), you'd better be handy with a silent J. The starter at February's Nissan ( L.A.) Open so badly botched Hjertstedt's name that the golfer called it the most strained effort he'd ever heard. "It wasn't good," Hjertstedt said later. "I felt sorry for the guy."
Hjertstedt, who qualified for the Masters with his victory at the Tucson Open, and Sj�land, who received the last special invite, are enjoying pronounced success this year after each was nearly given up for dead.
Sj�land is the lesser known of the two. You may have seen him winning his first two matches at the World Match Play in February, over Jim Furyk and Carlos Franco, before John Huston beat him one up. Sj�land was the skinny blond guy wearing a lot of black. What you may not know is that Sj�land almost died in a '92 car crash in Sweden in which he was catapulted through a closed sunroof. Sj�land's sister and her friend were wearing seat belts. He wasn't He lost his spleen and was unconscious for a week
"I woke up and thought it was just hours after the accident," Sj�land says. "I phoned the place where I was working [a plastics factory] and said, 'I'm not coming in tomorrow' "
It would be six months before Sj�land started playing golf again. He worked his way up through the Challenge tour and got his European tour card in 1995. He now lives in Marbella, Spain, with his fianc�e and caddie, Ulrika, whom he credits for his breakthrough season in '98, when he won the Italian Open and finished second three times. "It's easier not to spend three or four weeks apart, plus she's helped me mentally," says Sj�land. "When I practice, I'm more focused, and when I'm off the course, I'm [mentally] off the course."
Gabriel Steig Johan Eric Hjertstedt is also tight with his caddie: his 20-year-old brother, Henrik, also a pro. It was Henrik, Hjertstedt says, who subdued Gabe's nerves during the latter's victories at the '97 B.C. Open and then at Tucson in February. "It's nice to have him down the stretch," Gabe says, "because I know what he does, how he behaves. He doesn't interfere."
Hjertstedt, who is older than Sj�land by one day, hit his nadir in '95 with a bad case of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome. The pain in his head was so incessant he once considered suicide. "It was just a terrible time; I'm glad I'm far away from that now," he says. "The medical field in America probably could have told me straightaway what it was, but I was traveling and playing so much I was seeing different doctors, who were telling me different things. Most of them said it was mental. I went a year before I found out what it was."
Hjertstedt, who made so few cuts on the European tour that he was reduced to sleeping in his car, found a sponsor—a friend from Sweden—had oral surgery and in '96 returned to competition with a tie for ninth at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament Says Hjertstedt, "Nobody believed I would come back."
Given what they've endured, Hjertstedt and Sj�land could be excused if they crowed all the way down Magnolia Lane, but their excitement is more endearing than annoying. After winning at Tucson, which was contested the same week as the $5 million World Match Play, Hjertstedt was asked whether it bothered him to have played in the shadows of the richer tournament. "We should be happy playing for this much money," he said, declaring himself pleased with his $495,000 check.