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In Your Face
Alan Shipnuck
September 20, 1999
Confrontational and controversial, Jarmo Sandelin has few friends on either side of the Atlantic, which is how he likes it
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September 20, 1999

In Your Face

Confrontational and controversial, Jarmo Sandelin has few friends on either side of the Atlantic, which is how he likes it

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Emboldened by the victory, Sandelin decided to play the U.S. Tour in 1996, and the experience was a disaster. He made one cut in 14 starts, earning $2,509 to finish 360th on the money list. Sandelin's self-taught swing crumbled amid the tighter fairways, taller rough and more abundant trees. It didn't help that he was swinging a cartoonish 57-inch-long driver. (The standard shaft length is 43½ inches.) Sandelin salvaged the season with a victory back on the European tour, at the Madeira Island Open, but coming home from the U.S. with his tail between his legs had a profound effect.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was going to America and playing like s—," he says. "I learned all my weaknesses." Upon his return, Sandelin sought—for the first time-outside instruction, from Joakim Sabel, who's now the head pro at Stockholm Golf Club, and worked hard to refine his jerky, mechanical swing. Sandelin went winless in 1997 and '98, but his action was becoming easier on the eyes. More important than the change in mechanics was that Sandelin overhauled his attitude. His obsession with length began to lessen as he shelved the giant driver (it now hangs on the wall, like an oversized marlin, at Stars and Bars, his favorite sports bar in Monte Carlo), and he stopped trying to turn the ball over for extra distance, instead playing a more controllable fade, a la David Duval. "Four years ago I was like a jungle man," he says. "I would go for it all the time. Now I try to control myself."

It has all come together for Sandelin this season. He has won twice, the Spanish Open in April and the Ger- man Open in June, and is now 12th on the European money list. The victory in Spain was particularly notable because it came after he had taken two months off to come to grips with the death of his mother. At the trophy ceremony in Barcelona, Sandelin tearfully dedicated the win—"This one and the next one and the one after that"—to Sinikka.

The passionate performance (he was 21 under par for the week) was entirely in character. Sandelin thrives on adversity, which has been the subtext of most of his finest moments in golf. Take the '96 Dun-hill Cup at St. Andrews, where he was first described as Europe's bad boy. Playing at the august Old Course, Sandelin nearly came to blows with Phil Mickelson during their match. Sandelin was celebrating his frequent birdies by pretending that his putter was a rifle. He claims he was only shooting at the hole in a sort of obnoxious celebration, while Mickelson felt the imaginary bullets were aimed at him. "I wasn't going to let it go without saying something," Mickelson says. Walking off the 13th green "our noses touched, and we had words."

Sandelin confirms the incident. "I told him to f—- off," he says. "I haven't spoken to him since and have no desire to do so."

The dustup became big news, but what no one remembers is that Sandelin shot down Mickelson and also defeated Colin Montgomerie and Nick Price that week. Likewise, one of the turning points of Sandelin's career came at the '98 Trophée Lancôme, the tournament in which, a year earlier, he had come in second and had his dispute with O'Meara. With plenty of bad mojo still in the air, Sandelin himself was charged with breaking the rules by his soon-to-be Ryder Cup teammate, Lee Westwood.

Sandelin's ball moved as he addressed a one-foot putt, and Westwood insisted that Sandelin take a penalty stroke. Sandelin claimed not to have grounded his putter, which would have left him in the clear. An official ruled for Sandelin, but public opinion was on Westwood's side. With a cloud hanging over him, Sandelin shot a 63 the next day and wound up tying for second. "It was the last time I doubted myself on a golf course," says Sandelin. "Now when it gets tough, I know I'll get more focused."

That is exactly why those who know Sandelin think he will be such an asset for Europe at the Ryder Cup, even though he figures to be public enemy No. 1 in Brookline, Mass. "I can tell you, [the hostility's] not going to bother him," says Parnevik. "He likes it like that. The strength of his game is guts. That's the thing he lives on."

Sandelin came to last month's PGA dead set on making a triumphant return to the States, and he wanted to use the tough conditions at Medinah as a warmup for the Ryder Cup. Turned out on Thursday in a white velour shirt trimmed in pea green, with a $1,500 jewel-encrusted Claudio Calestani belt, Sandelin spent most of the first round hacking out of the rough on the way to a 77. On Friday he shot 72 to miss the cut. Sandelin's bad shot is a fade that turns into a slice, no doubt exacerbated by the fact that his driver is still a somewhat ludicrous 52 inches long. "A couple of times I've wanted to tell him to get rid of that driver," says Johansson. "He can't hit it—nobody can. He hits his three-wood 280 yards and straight. That's good enough. It's an image thing.

It's very Jarmo to have that big driver." It is also very Jarmo not to have anyone who feels he can go to him with advice, even among the cliquish Swedes. Sandelin is proud to be a lone wolf, and he says without self-consciousness that he has no friends on either tour.

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