Thomas Bjørn opens up on the dark side of life as a professional golfer

Even the high of captaining a winning Ryder Cup team was shrouded in his struggles with depression

Thomas Bjørn talks about his battles with depression during his career as  a professional golfer in a new book. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Thomas Bjørn talks about his battles with depression during his career as a professional golfer in a new book. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

 

“I think you hide from it,” Thomas Bjørn says quietly of the anguish which has affected him and so many other professional sportsmen and women. Stepping away from his role as Europe’s Ryder Cup-winning captain in Paris last September, the 48-year-old Dane peels away the facade which conceals the raw problems of mental health in golf.

“When you’re a young man you hide your feelings,” Bjørn says. “You keep pushing it away until you can’t do it any more. I finally realised I had to get everything out. I had to have those conversations with myself in the mirror. I had to be so honest and strip things bare. When I went through it the second time I was receptive to my feelings, to building myself up again.”

Bjørn’s and Michael Calvin’s new book, Mind Game, is an unflinching yet beautifully written account of the psychological trauma he suffered as a golfer. It is an equally gripping portrayal of the internal struggle faced by many of his contemporaries. Some of the men Bjørn led to Ryder Cup glory – including Tommy Fleetwood, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson – share their moving stories. They offer a salutary reminder that, rather than just being millionaires in golf’s pampered world, they are as vulnerable and conflicted as most people.

The book opens with Bjørn staring at himself in the mirror. His eyes are filled with tears as he asks a series of stark questions: “Why are you crying? Why do you put yourself through this pain? Why do you play this game? Do you really want to continue?”

Bjørn, in his first interview since completing the book, takes a deep breath as we return to these dark moments. “I was close to giving up the game,” he says. “In the end it’s almost like I didn’t want to get up in the morning. This happens because the problems you see in your head are so much bigger than they are in reality. They take over your mind.

“You can ask all the people in the world but in the end, if your mind doesn’t respond, all of that is just noise. You need to take responsibility for what you’re thinking. It’s like trying to quit smoking. If you don’t want to stop smoking, you can have all the help in the world and it’s not going to get you there. But then you wake up one morning and you’re coughing so much, and feeling so crap, you decide: ‘I have to beat this.’ You need to want to do it. My tool was having those conversations with the mirror. Those conversations were not made up. They happened.”

How long did Bjørn’s first bout of depression last? “I went through a season where I certainly didn’t want to get out of bed. I had kids, so I had to. But I wanted to hide from the world – and my life. This was around 2004. I then had a good stretch but I had it again about 2010. The first time lasted a long time because you avoid the truth and try to cut corners. It will stay with you until you look in the mirror.

Thomas Bjørn captained Europe to Ryder Cup victory in Paris in 2018. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images
Thomas Bjørn captained Europe to Ryder Cup victory in Paris in 2018. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images

“That was my tool to deal with it. When you start sliding down it’s very important to remember how you got out of it last time. As you get older that becomes easier. So mental health in young people is something we need to address much more. Young people are much softer and don’t have the life experience. When you’re older and you’ve taken yourself out of the situation twice, three times, it’s easier to see the warning lights.”

Despite its conservative and mannered surface, golf is a brutal sport mentally. As Bjørn says, no other sport offers such a lonely battle where your real opponent is always yourself and you stand over a little white ball which is never touched by any rival. “Snooker is the only sport that comes close. I’m thinking more about the guy sitting and watching when his opponent is at the table. What’s going through his head? That’s the same in golf. The walk between shots gives you so much time. You think of the consequences so much.

“That’s one thing I felt as Ryder Cup captain. In the first six months I had it all in place. But then I had so much time to second-guess myself. Over-analysing in sport, in life, can lead to negative thoughts. An over-active brain is not great for sport. I can get caught in a corner and sit there and think for hours. And then, all of a sudden, it’s easy to get in a downward spiral. It was the same with Henrik Stenson. I’d seen the darkest side of the game through him.”

It says much about the compassion of Bjørn that, recalling the three times he cried on the golf course, he twice shed tears of happiness for his friends. He cried when Adam Scott won the 2013 Masters because he regarded the Australian as being like a younger brother. Even more movingly he could not stop his tears when Stenson won the Open in 2016. Bjørn remembered how, a dozen years before, Stenson was so tormented by his game he could barely hit the ball.

“At that time Henrik got something very much like a brain freeze – of not being able to hit the ball. Watching it then, and we were quite young, you don’t fully understand all he is going through. But in later years, as you get into dark places yourself, you realise what turmoil he must have been in. I learned that you should never judge.

“But from that low Henrik lifted himself to where he became, arguably, the best player in the world for a period of time. That shows how the mind shapes so much of our lives. Sportspeople are privileged with a good life. But that doesn’t mean their mental health will never be affected. They get pushed into pressurised situations all the time – and it can spin itself into a situation where they can’t handle it. This is sport’s dark side.”

Stenson was one of Bjørn’s four captain’s picks in the Ryder Cup last year. His choice of Stenson, Ian Poulter, Sergio García and Paul Casey was criticised as “an old pals’ act” – but his wildcard players won a record 9½ points between them as Europe, inspired by Bjørn’s calm leadership, beat the US 17½-10½.

“I know them so well, those four,” he says simply. “I’m an observer of human beings. I knew how they would react. But it was not just these four. All 12 of my European players were willing to listen and do everything for each other. I was lucky. I’ve been involved in a lot of Ryder Cups and I’ve never seen players show up in the way my 12 did.”

Thomas Bjørn believes Tiger Woods’s comeback to win The Masters is the best moment in the history of the game. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Thomas Bjørn believes Tiger Woods’s comeback to win The Masters is the best moment in the history of the game. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Bjørn cried in Paris when, after the cup had been won, he saw his children. In that moment did he also feel he was no longer typecast as the man who lost the Open in a bunker? On the 16th tee of the final round of the 2003 Open at Royal St George’s Bjørn held a two-shot lead with three holes to play – but it took him three shots to get out of that deadly bunker. Bjørn lost the Open and the scars ran deep. Surely most people now think of him as a victorious Ryder Cup captain?

“Probably more people associate me with this now – and not something that happened 16 years ago in a bunker on the south coast of England. Hopefully that balances it out. But people who were there, or watched it on TV, will always remember my moments in that bunker.”

Did it impact on his mental health? “Yes. I thought I dealt with it really well in the moment, because it’s only golf. It’s not life-threatening. It’s a moment that gives somebody else success. That happens in sport all the time. But once you’re in it you stand alone. Every time you met somebody that was the only thing they asked you about. In the end it gets you.”

Bjørn’s empathy for those who have fallen much further is at the root of his admiration for Tiger Woods’s comeback. Seven weeks ago, when Woods arrowed an eight-iron to within three feet of the hole at the 16th on the Sunday afternoon at Augusta, to virtually seal the Masters and his first Major victory in 11 years, Bjørn texted Calvin: ‘Unbelievable. This is the best moment in the history of the game’.

“I tried to explain to Mike,” Bjørn says, “that, for golf, this is the greatest moment. This is the biggest icon the game has ever had, coming from the darkest of dark places, to rise again. This was not about golf. This was about a human being taking himself from the deepest low. I can’t even begin to think about how dark some of those moments have been for Tiger. Now he’s got the taste for it again. If he stays fully healthy he will win more.”

One of his Ryder Cup stars, Rory McIlroy, won four Majors by the time he was 25 but has now waited five years and is yet to win another. “His talent is exceptional. But sometimes the game is so easy for him his concentration fails. But, like Tiger, Rory will win more Majors. Once he wins another, and I’m 100 per cent certain he will, he’ll kick on and do more.”

In his more modest way Bjørn fulfilled the promise he made before the Ryder Cup that he would have a tattoo of the trophy inked on his behind. He went to a tattoo parlour in Soho and, as he smiles now, “I fortunately can’t see it. But I’ll always have that tattoo to remind me of something exceptional I never dreamt could have gone so well.”

Thomas Bjørn is confident that Rory McIlroy can end his Majors droubt and ass to his four wins. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Thomas Bjørn is confident that Rory McIlroy can end his Majors droubt and ass to his four wins. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Did the tattoo artist know anything about golf? “Nothing. He did it quite well, though.”

Bjørn still plays golf, on a limited basis, as he works out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. “I’m not really making any big decisions yet. I said after the Ryder Cup I needed three months. I probably need a full year to let the world settle down.

“I love playing. I love travelling. I love being on tour. I don’t know 80 per cent of the players now. There are young kids coming through from all corners of the world that are fantastic players. I love seeing developments in the game and being in it. I still want to live my life from inside the ropes.”

The game almost broke him but now, free from the anguish which stalked him so long, Bjørn sounds at peace. “I used to blame the game for how I was feeling. But you end up hating golf because it’s easy to hate. It’s like hating a government because it’s easy to blame somebody else. But this is your life and you can turn it around. It’s not the game’s fault. I am happy I found a way to learn to love the game, and life, again.” – Guardian

Mind Game: The Secrets of Golf’s Winners, by Michael Calvin and Thomas Bjørn, is published by Yellow Jersey

Anyone affected by issues raised in this article can contact the Samaritans at its helpline 116 123 or by email to jo@samaritans.org; the Pieta House helpline is 1800 247 247.

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