I’ve always enjoyed the company of the Swedish golfers I’ve met on my travels and Henrik Stenson’s fantastic Open victory set me to thinking back to some of my favourite Swedish moments, in no particular order.
It was 1997 and my second visit to The Masters at Augusta. I was invited to a do in the clubhouse and a couple of us sneaked off to take a peek at the players’ locker room. The one set of clubs left there overnight belonged to Jesper Parnevik and, very unprofessionally (most pros hate people poking at their precious clubs) we had a good ole riffle through his clubs and a couple of putts up and down the locker room with his rather peculiar-shaped putter. Didn’t seem to do him any harm (or good). He finished 21st.
In 1993 I was recovering from back surgery and despite my absence leaving the field clear for Annika Sorenstam, the future world No 1 failed to win in her rookie year on the Ladies’ European Tour. My first sight of her hitting a golf ball was a tee shot in a practice round for the 1994 Solheim Cup at The Greenbrier. The great JoAnne Carner, the US captain, resplendent in a stars-and-stripes-spangled baseball cap, was also at the tee and she cheerfully called out, “NOW I see what all the fuss is about!” At that stage Annika had only one professional win to her name – the Australian Open, which she’d won at Royal Adelaide earlier that year. She had yet to bring America and the wider golfing world to its knees.
It was back in the early 1980s in my amateur days that Sweden stepped up a gear or two with their professional approach to the game, their preparation and their players. They had a production line of talent and spearheading this on the women’s side was Liv Wollin – a six footer with an extraordinarily effective hockey-like swing. She was the first player I ever saw lie flat on her tummy to read a putt, a real worm’s eye view. There’s nothing new under the sun Camillo Villegas.
Any time you win anything in this game you can usually look back and see where the luck ran your way. And it did for Ireland in the women’s European Team Championships at Royal Waterloo Golf Club in Belgium in 1983. We had fought our way through to the semi-finals and were due to meet the holders, Sweden, who were being led by the teenage prodigy that was Liselotte Neumann. At the age of 15 she had just won her National Championship by nine shots. The team sheets were handed in ahead of the match and Lotta’s name was nowhere to be seen. She had food poisoning and was unable to leave her bed. Ireland went on to win the match and beat England in the final. Rumours of sabotage remain unproven!
Sophie Gustafson overcame tremendous personal challenges to carve out a glittering professional career of 28 worldwide victories. One of the most popular players I know, Sophie has learned to manage her speech difficulties to a remarkable degree. She had a debilitating stutter that disappeared whenever she sang or swore, which she could do in fluent Anglo-Saxon! When she won the Women’s British Open at Royal Birkdale in 2000, she asked fellow professional Federica Dassu to make her winner’s speech for her. At her eighth Solheim Cup in 2011 in Ireland Sophie recorded an interview with the Golf Channel. It took her an hour to answer the questions for a three and a half minute interview. I was a helper to the European team that year and I was so proud of her. It was a real lump-in-the throat moment.
It must be 30 years since I first met Pia Nilsson who was no pushover in her playing days but became a world-class coach. Sweden stunned the golfing world in the 1990s when they appointed Pia as the national coach to both the women’s AND the men’s teams, amateur and professional. This was groundbreaking stuff. Five years on she confided to me that she was finishing the job because she had “so many other things I want to do”. I was astounded. If I thought Pia was near the pinnacle of the game she thought she was simply in the foothills.
Two decades on she and her partner Lynn Marriott are the founders of the world-renowned Vision 54 company, as much sought after in the business as the sporting world. A few years ago I asked her for her opinion on the differences in teaching women as opposed to men – a topic I was speaking on at several PGA conferences. Typically, she batted the question back telling me absolutely zilch. I challenged her about it the next time we met but she knew I’d learn more by having to come to my own conclusions than by listening to hers.
Pia remains the consummate educator and enabler, always learning and leading others to believe that there are no limits to human potential, in golf or life.
And now Sweden have their first male major champion. I couldn’t be happier. To all my Swedish friends and colleagues – get used to it. This’ll be the first of many. #FLOODGATES!