Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn uses Steven Gerrard as a model for his first major decision
It was no surprise to hear Thomas Bjorn expressing his admiration for Steven Gerrard. The one-Tour golfer sees in the one-club player the attribute which he has always held dear. However, for Europe’s new Ryder Cup captain it is this loyalty which is already causing him headaches as he seeks to put his stamp on the controversial qualifying system.
The Dane all but admitted it when sitting down at a Heathrow hotel the day after being confirmed as Darren Clarke’s successor. Bjorn knows that there are leading lights such as Rory McIlroy looking for a change which will guard against another Paul Casey scenario, the Englishman who could not even be considered for the last match because of his status as non-member of the European Tour. Of course, the captain craves the best team possible for Paris, 2018. But at the same time, the Tour devotee within wants to protect the circuit.
“In the perfect world we want every European to be eligible to be a part of this team,” Bjorn said. “But as someone who has been involved with the Tournament Players Committee for so long, you do understand that there is a business to run.”
Bjorn has been chairman of that committee for the past nine years but will now step down to concentrate on the small matter of trying to avoid Europe’s first back-to-back defeats in 25 years as well as their first home defeat since 1993. Naturally, the team’s make-up is everything and Bjorn acknowledges that the first decision in his 22-month tenure could well prove to be the most important.
“That is why I’m glad that this has happened now, earlier than usual,” he said. “Because the more time we have to sort out the qualifying criteria, the better. But we cannot sit around, because we do need to get our heads together and get dates, so the players can sort out their schedules and know exactly where they stand.”
Bjorn is talking 'tweaks’ rather than a radical revamp. One option which is understood to be on the table is for Bjorn to increase the number of captain’s picks at his disposal from three to four, one of which would be a 'super wild card’ and could be used to select a non-member. Another is relaxing the membership requirement itself, although seeing as the minimum number of events is only five – not including the majors or WGCs – there is not much give in that. Whatever, there is a palpable feeling that something must be done to counter the threat of the newly united US team.
“I’m well aware that we will be up against a great team,” he said. “They seemed to get a lot of things right at Hazeltine and we’ll see if they get them again. It’s always a challenge to beat the Americans, but there was something about them last time – we could all see that. It’s going to a be a tough task but I have no intention of losing. Saying that, I don’t fear losing. I just want to be able to look at myself in the mirror afterwards and say 'yeah, I did everything I could to win’.”
If there are any concerns about Bjorn’s suitability to the role, they concern his temper. Bjorn’s outbursts became so notorious on Tour that he was nicknamed “Semtex”. Most famously there was the 2006 tantrum against the then captain Ian Woosnam for overlooking him for a wild card. Woosnam buried the hatchet in Telegraph Sport on Wednesday, a gracious gesture for which Bjorn said he was “extremely grateful”. But although Bjorn says the fire is still there, he now knows when to employ the afterburners.
“I’ve always had that passion for the European Tour, and I feel I can transfer that to this job and give myself to it in the same way I did to being chairman of the tournament committee,” he said. “But there’s a flip side to everything. You have got to sit back sometimes. I have learned a lot over the years. When I look at my vice-captains, from the time I first did it with Bernard [Langer] in 2004 to where I am today, I’m a lot better at taking that step back and just letting things happen and calming down, rather than jumping straight in and saying the first thing that comes to mind. Although I recognise it will be more pressure in the hot seat.”
On that score, Bjorn will take advice from former captains, including Woosnam. The Liverpool fan will also seek out his hero.
“Steven posting that video of congratulations to me just blew me away,” Bjorn said. “He was a great leader, inspirational in so many ways. To stay at a club for that long – when he could have gone pretty much anywhere he wanted – while realising he might not win everything, that says a lot about the man. I’ve yet to meet him, but he’s certainly a guy I would like to get in touch with.”