Thomas Bjørn understood the intensity of The Ryder Cup the moment he helped beat the reigning Open Champion of 1997.
The Dane, then a 26 year old rookie with a potent mix of brain and brawn, was paired with Ian Woosnam to tackle Justin Leonard and Brad Faxon during the Saturday morning fourballs at Valderrama. Leonard had finished three shots clear of Bjørn’s teammates Darren Clarke and Jesper Parnevik at Royal Troon just two months before posing the first challenge of the Danish debutant’s Ryder Cup story.
Belying his junior status on the team, Bjørn, the first man from Denmark to make a Ryder Cup team, helped Woosnam to edge out the Americans and record a 2 and 1 victory. The wheels were in motion. Seve Ballesteros’ team went on to clinch The Ryder Cup and it proved the catalyst for all that would follow for Bjørn.
After earning two more team appearances and four vice-captaincy berths, the 45 year old is now at the summit.
The competitive edge still lingers within the 15-time tour winner, in spite of back problems that have prevented him from teeing it up regularly in recent years.
As recently as 2014 he summoned some of his best golf to win on the European Tour, his triumph at the Nedbank Golf Challenge coming 18 years after his first Tour victory at the Loch Lomond World Invitational.
Big things seemed inevitable from the get-go for Bjørn. A blistering 1995 on the European Challenge Tour ended with three victories, the first of which came at the Himmerland Open in his native Denmark. The promise of that impressive 12 months came to fruition. The salad days of the 1990s unfolded first with his maiden win at Loch Lomond Golf Club and then with three more European Tour victories before the millennium.
Major Championship success has proved elusive, but a tie for second at The 2000 Open Championship at St Andrews was progress, even if a young phenom by the name of Tiger Woods did finish eight shots clear.
However, Bjørn does currently occupy a place in the Major record books, thanks to a 63 at the 2005 US PGA Championship. No one has bettered a round of 63 in a Major, although 28 others have equalled it. His share of history was not enough, though, to beat Phil Mickelson to the Wanamaker trophy at Baltusrol in New Jersey.
By that point Bjørn had already cultivated the vice-captaincy skills that would be used as a trusted foundation by three future Ryder Cup captains. Acting as one of Bernhard Langer’s right-hand men at Oakland Hills Country Club in 2004, Bjørn helped oversee Europe’s crushing 18.5 - 9.5 victory over Hal Sutton’s United States team.
Ahead of the 2010 Ryder Cup, Bjørn, acting as vice-captain for the second time, was in no doubt as to what was required from a second in command.
“I think you need strong people, you need people that the team respects. When they walk in a room they almost give a captain’s feeling,” he said prior to a Colin Montgomerie-inspired European victory at Celtic Manor.
That Bjørn would go on to offer guidance to two more European captains, Jose María Olazábal and Darren Clarke, suggests the respect of his contemporaries has never been in short supply. Following on from his vice-captaincy under Montgomerie in 2010, he finished ninth in the end-of-season rankings a year later and would go on to finish in the top 12 twice more in the following three years, culminating in a place on Paul McGinley’s team at Gleneagles.
In 2007, Bjørn became the chairman of the European Tour Tournament Committee, reaffirming the high regard in which he’s long been held, and two years later captained continental Europe in the Seve Trophy. Evidently this appointment has been a long time in the making.
His experience and leadership will serve Europe well. There couldn’t be a better time for Bjørn to face up to his greatest challenge yet.