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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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The outsider will let you in, but just barely and only on his terms. A visit to his Monte Carlo flat, which is nestled in the first turn of the route used in the Grand Prix, with a sweeping view of the famous harbor, is out of the question. Even in Sweden, the country where he came of age as a golfer, the country for which he will carry the flag at next week's Ryder Cup—though it's not the land of his birth—even there the wall does not come down. To open up his hotel room, and by extension his life, to prying eyes is unthinkable. No, the outsider will let you in, but it will be in the middle of a bustling hotel lobby, where he can sink into an overstuffed black leather chair and be alone amid the crowd, which is how he likes it. "Ask me anything you want," Jarmo Sandelin says in his halting English and with a gracious sweep of his hand. "I will answer everything. That is my problem, you know. Sometimes my mouth gets going so fast no air has the chance to travel to my brain." Sandelin laughs heartily, a joke at his own expense. He knows his reputation, especially in the U.S. "A wild man. No?" he says. "A crazy man. No?"

Were it not for that image, Sandelin's journey from teenage outcast to a place among the game's elite would be the kind of corny inspirational tale that golf coaches the world over recite to their charges. This season Sandelin, 32, has emerged as a force on the European tour, and with his length, sublime putting touch and hyperaggressive style of play, he could be a key figure in the Ryder Cup, even as a rookie. Still, there is almost nothing Sandelin can do on the course now to erase his reputation off it: a court jester, a human punch line. He is a man of such curious standing that when he touched off a transatlantic feud by accusing Mark O'Meara of mismarking his ball at the '97 Trophée Lancôme and thus cheating his way to victory, O'Meara adopted a standard line of defense: "Just look at the player who is drumming all of this up," he would say, as if that's all there was to it.

If you really look at Sandelin, then, what do you find? "He's so misunderstood," says Gabriel Hjertstedt, the two-time PGA Tour winner who grew up competing against Sandelin. "He's a good guy, sweet really. He's different in a sense. Not to a normal person, but to most golfers. He had it so tough coming up that he got hardened. Everything you see is a pose to hide the scars."

Sandelin was born in Imatra, Finland, and lived there until he was seven, when the family moved across the border to Stockholm so his father, Lauri, could pursue construction work. It was a trip of less than 400 miles, but Sandelin suddenly found himself in alien environs. "It is like in California," says Fredrik Johnson, Sandelin's Monaco-based agent. "The Finns are like the Mexicans. They are looked down upon because they come over with no money and are forced to live together in poor areas and take whatever jobs they can get." Asked for his early memories of Sweden, Sandelin lets out a hard laugh. "A lot of good fistfights," he says.

Sandelin found escape in, of all things, miniature golf. In Sweden they take their mini-golf seriously, eschewing windmills and fire-breathing dragons in favor of manicured courses and national tournaments. Sandelin was a natural, and when he was 13 his mother, Sinikka, obtained Swedish citizenship for him so he could be a member of the national junior team. (His brother, Jerry, also became a Swedish national, but his sister, Brigitta, and their parents remained citizens of Finland.) For three years Sandelin played for the team, occasionally having to test his stroke on courses with marble putting surfaces. (No wonder, as fellow Swede Per-Ulrik Johansson says, "Jarmo is a great, great putter. From 10 feet in he is the best in the world.") When Sandelin was 14, two events changed the course of his life. His 43-year-old father, a smoker, died of lung disease, and Jarmo was rudderless. Soon after, he happened upon a driving range, his first introduction to real golf. Sandelin took out his anger and frustration on the range's striped balls, and for the first time he saw his future.

Because Sandelin was already a teenager, he was not welcomed into the vaunted Swedish Golf Federation, which has constructed so many world-class players on its assembly line. "If you're not in their system from the very beginning, forget it," says Sandelin. "They don't want you." Did his Finnish origins play a part in his exclusion? "It didn't help, that's for sure," he says.

So Sandelin worked on his game alone, competing in club events and local tournaments. One player who watched him from a distance was impressed by his grit, and still is. "No one believed in Jarmo except for Jarmo," says Jesper Parnevik. "He has had to work for everything because the federation did nothing for him at all. They gave him no support because they thought he was so bad. We all did. Everybody laughed at him, but he always said he was going to make it. Even then he had a cockiness that wouldn't go away."

"My dad wasn't a golfer, but he gave me the best advice I have ever gotten," says Sandelin. "When I was very young he told me, 'Don't ever let anyone intimidate you. Tell them to back off.' They are words I've always remembered."

After only six years of playing the game, Sandelin turned pro in 1987, when he was 20. He suspected he wasn't ready but was seduced by dreams of easing the financial pressure on his mother, who worked several jobs to support the family. For six long years Sandelin haunted the European Challenge tour (the equivalent of the U.S. Nike tour), leaving behind a trail of debts and smashed golf clubs. Funds were so scarce that during the winters he worked cleaning office buildings for a company run by his brother. Even during the season he was known to work the night shift on Mondays and Tuesdays between tournaments. Some of Sandelin's financial duress was self-inflicted, as he was already something of a dandy. "I always stayed in a decent hotel even though I probably should have been sleeping in my car," he says. "I knew if I slept somewhere nice, I would go to the course feeling good about myself, and that has always been important to me."

In 1993 Sandelin finally broke through on the Challenge tour with an emotional victory in the Finnish PGA Championship. The following year he won another event and earned a promotion to the European tour. "There was no possible way I was going to fail," he says of his rookie year, 1995. "I couldn't. It was my one and only chance, and I knew it." In only his fourth tournament, the Turespaña Open, he came from two down at the start of the final round to trump Seve Ballesteros on Ballesteros's home turf. The first thing Sandelin did with his winner's check was buy his mother an apartment in Helsinki.

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