While Cameron Young – playing in The Open for the first time – took the first round lead at St Andrews, Thomas Bjorn was impressed with the first-round performance of Rory McIlroy, who shot 66, six under par, to occupy second place, two shots off Young’s early lead.
“Rory McIlroy was excellent today,” started Bjorn, speaking to guests of Mercedes-Benz at St Andrews. “He shot 66 and it was the easiest round of golf I have seen him play in a long time. Rory said it felt ‘stress-free’ and that is how it looked.”
Bjorn was the first Dane to win on the European Tour, in 1996, and he was twice runner-up in The Open, in 2000 at St Andrews and in 2003 at Royal St. George’s.
“Rory certainly has the bit between his teeth at the moment,” added Bjorn, who captained McIlroy in the victorious European Ryder Cup team in 2018 in Paris. “He is on a mission to prove a point to the world and he is getting closer and closer to becoming the player he was for the first four or five years of his tour career. He is off to a good start but he has done that in the last two majors and then fallen away, so tomorrow (Friday) is a big day for him in the second round, to get out on that golf course and show he is back to his best.”
It was a different story for the player who remains the firm crowd favourite at The Open, Tiger Woods, who dropped four shots in the first four holes on his way to a deflating 78, six over par.
“We are all excited that Tiger is here this week,” said 51-year-old Bjorn. “A lot of the build-up was around him and where he is with his golf, so we were all a little bit flat after his first four holes, but he fought back a little bit.”
Woods, a three-time Open champ, lifted the Claret Jug for the first time in 2000 here on the Old Course, winning by eight shots, with Bjorn and Ernie Els joint runners-up.
“In 2000 and 2001 victories were hard to come by in the majors and the biggest events in the world,” recalled Bjorn. “Tiger was on a different planet. He played a game we had not seen before and Tiger changed the way golf is played. I was fortunate to play with him many times and I always had the attitude that I had the best seat in the house to watch the best player that has ever played.
“In the 2000 Open I was paired with him on the Saturday and I got to see up close his control, his attitude and the way he worked his way around the golf course. You could see how Tiger thrived on those pressurised situations. He wants to be out there and to be better than everybody else. He wants to show that to himself and to everyone.”
Bjorn also identified Scottie Scheffler, the world No. 1, as a serious contender after the American shot 68 on the opening day, four under par, to claim a share of fifth place with seven others.
“Something inside of me says that Scottie Scheffler will be very close to this championship on Sunday evening,” said Bjorn. “When I played at my best there was always Tiger and Phil [Mickelson] and then the rest of us, but at this moment there are 25 or 30 top players who are quite equal to the task, so you know there is going to be some kind of battle come Sunday between players at the top of their game, and that is always entertaining. There are a lot of exciting players at the moment: Scheffler, Xander Schauffele, Viktor Hovland, Jon Rahm. It is a great thing about golf these days.”
There were only gentle breezes across the Old Course, yet while there has been talk this week of players possibly over-powering the Old Course, the world’s oldest golf course held its own.
“People have been saying that someone is going to shoot 59 this week,” said Bjorn, “but when you see where the R&A can put the pins you can see that scoring is much more difficult. There was a 64 today from Cameron Young – and that score could have been even lower – but other than that the scoring today has been pretty normal for an Open.
“It was a tough set of pins today. The R&A can’t get it much tougher but they won’t make it much easier either. They will try to firm up the course as much as they can and firmness is the thing that makes players feel like they lose control.”
Twice runner-up in The Open, in 2000 and again in 2003, Bjorn retains great affection for a fast-running links course, as the Old Course is shaping up to be in this dry spell of summer weather in Scotland.
“I love links golf,” admitted Bjorn. “I like the way links golf courses play and it was the faster the better for me. I had a very good short game so when the golf courses got fast and you missed a lot of greens – even with good shots, because the ball just keeps rolling – I had a short game in the top-10 at my best and that gave me the opportunity not to get frustrated. That’s the thing with golf courses like this – they can frustrate you very easily.
“I loved it when I could see other players getting frustrated and I always thought that played into my hands. It was a fight and you had to give it 100 percent.”
Bjorn was so close to becoming Open champion in 2003, when he held a two-shot lead with three holes to play in Sandwich, before taking three to get out of a greenside bunker at the par-three 16th. The Dane lost by one to American Ben Curtis and the St. George’s members still call it “Bjorn’s Bunker”.
“I hit a poor tee shot on 16,” recollected Bjorn. “It wasn’t awful but it was a poor shot. I got a little bit too aggressive and I didn’t pull off the shot that I wanted. Then I hit a poor bunker shot and all of a sudden the ball fell back into my footprint, and then things happened that were fairly out of my control. I was in a circumstance that anyone would find extremely difficult to deal with. I played some of the best golf of my life for almost 70 holes so I was just trying to continue to play good golf.
“When you come down the stretch of a major you don’t think about the magnitude of the situation; you think about the golf shots. You don’t think that you are in a situation that could change your life. That comes afterwards.”
Unfailingly honest, Bjorn confided that he struggled to recover from losing The Open in 2003.
“It took a long time for me to evaluate the situation and put some perspective onto it,” he said. “At least I was in that situation at Royal St. George’s, while most other players never get there at all.
“Not winning was a big disappointment and it took a couple of years for me to get over it, but I am proud of the player I was in those championships. As I sit here today I am delighted with my Open record, although I am disappointed that I could not have gone one better. That is the way things are sometimes.”