This year’s Ryder Cup kicks-off in Paris at Le Golf National this Friday (September 28) and although Team USA are the bookies’ favourites, Europe’s Danish captain Thomas Bjørn is intent on making them earn the right to retain the trophy.
The Americans can call on the winners of six of the past eight majors as well as Tiger Woods, who appears to be making an ominous return to form at just the right time. Tiger’s game was purring over the weekend, when he won his first tour event since 2013.
But if Bjørn is worried, he’s doing a good job of hiding it. Instead, he’s talking tough and backing the decisions he made in forming the team earlier this year. The Jackal heard how he’s been preparing to go head-to-head with opposite number Jim Furyk, why he trusts his team to perform, and how he thinks Europe might just clinch this year’s tournament.
Tell us about pulling together your team? How do you make such a tough decision?
10 to 15 years ago, you’d have eight certainties for your team, followed by four places between around 10 players, but now, making these decisions has got much tougher – there are hardly any certainties. If you look at today’s top players, you’ll fill a few guaranteed places on the team, but they only need to go a little bit off their game and they can lose out. I never look at anyone as a certainty to make the team, they have to be playing good golf, period. Especially when the sport has become so competitive.
Did the Rolex Series help you in choosing your European Ryder Cup team?
It certainly helps to bring perspective to who’s playing well, as the Rolex Series events allowed me to see Europe’s best golfers all play together. They play the Majors, they play the World Golf Championships, but if they also then play in the Rolex Series together, the whole process helps to build team spirit, so from a captain’s point of view the Rolex Series has been a great addition. My job is to learn as much as I can about each of them individually, and competitions like the Rolex Series series give me the chance to think things over.
So tell us about some of your decisions in shaping the team. Justin Rose made the cut?
You always want to see some of the guys get their year off to a good start. I think for Justin especially, given his scheduling, last year was a crucial time for him to make a push, and he did just that. Rory McIlory made the team because he spent last year playing catch-up following his injury, and now he’s ready to play on an even field, to get back to where he wants to be.
Looking at the broader issue of injuries in golf, are the increasing physical demands of the game making it tougher for professionals to compete?
I think there’s always been a bit of that, but it’s very easy to focus on injuries when they are so high profile. In our sport, you always hear about injuries, particularly with the likes of Rory and Tiger, and so on. That, coupled with the disappointment of not seeing the world’s top golfers play gets to the fans a bit and then we start questioning the fitness of professionals. In reality, injuries are problem in any sport.
How are you feeling about your prospects for the competition, then?
My message to the players is that it’s not about making the Ryder Cup team, it’s about playing in The Ryder Cup. You have to put your trust in your team and believe that your 12 guys can deliver, even if you want to fall back on what you know. The way I see it is that you’ve got to try to use your team as best you can. Confidence is everything in this game, every single player that is here this week can win this tournament if they’re feeling up to it.
And how have you found your transition from player to captain?
Everything that people say about it is true; it’s a lot more work and responsibility than you think it will be, but I’m trying to keep the captaincy and my own golf separate, even though that’s an extremely difficult thing to do. On the other hand, I think the captaincy has given me a fantastic perspective of where I am – I love being out here, not necessarily for the reasons of playing my own golf, but because I’m learning about people and different sportsmen.
Every single person I have met is so different, whether it’s how they practice, what team they have around them, and how they think about things. Some guys are living in a wonderland where they get to play golf all of the time, while other guys are so strict about everything they do. I think I’ve learned a lot about golfers, and I find that a little bit surreal. But, we’ve developed trust as a team, and I don’t try to be something that I’m not.
What do you think of the American team?
I’ve said all along that they have a great team, but I don’t think anyone should underestimate where we are at the moment. They have a fantastic team, but when you look at the world rankings, we have never been in a better position than they are right now. Having said that, I try never to underestimate what I’m up against; the Americans really do have some unbelievable golfers, and they’re going into the tournament as the favourites. On our part, we’re going in to do everything we can to win, and I really believe in the players that we have on this tour.
Rolex is the official sponsor of the Ryder Cup. Thomas Bjørn was speaking to The Jackal as a Rolex Testimonee