When a golfer travels halfway across the world for one week’s competition he might reasonably be expected to question the validity of the exercise. Thomas Björn did precisely that and found no difficulty in justifying his tiring journey to Perth, Western Australia for the Heineken Classic.
“I just love the place and the tournament” he stated simply, and therein lies the answer. The Dane is besotted by the majestic Vines Resort, which has hosted the Heineken Classic since 1996.
Björn has ample reason to feel comfortable with this idyllic Resort, set in the scenic Swan Valley 30 miles north east of the city of Perth. In four visits to the Graham Marsh-Ross Watson designed course, Denmark’s first Ryder Cup player has finished tied 25th, first, tied 26th and second. Not a record to be sneezed at.
The Vines Resort has hosted top level tournaments since its inception, starting with the Vines Classic in 1990 before being re-named the Heineken Classic, with the European Tour co-sanctioning the event from 1996.
The championship 18 holes is a composite of the Ellenbrook course for the front nine holes and the Lakes course. It is a finely balanced, demanding test which winds along the banks of the beautiful Ellenbrook, through gently undulating natural brushland and with three dramatic lakes around the Resort centre.
That 7101 yard stretch of prime real estate has been kind to Björn in the past. In 16 rounds, half of them have been sub-70 while his highest score has been 74. He defeated a high class field in 1998 to land his second European Tour title (Ian Woosnam, Ernie Els, José Maria Olazábal, Peter Baker and course record holder Padraig Harrington all chased him home) while only the sustained brilliance of Michael Campbell denied him 12 months ago.
The prospect of another visit to the Vines holds great appeal to Björn, who made his seasonal re-appearance in last week’s Mercedes-Benz South African Open following surgery to his foot during the brief winter break.
The Dane was forced reluctantly to withdraw from the WGC-EMC2 World Cup in Argentina and the WGC-Accenture World Match Play Championship to undergo surgery in his native country. Now, fitter but not yet quite 100 per cent, he can’t wait to renew acquaintance with one of Australia’s true gems.
He enthused: “It is one of my favourite venues of the entire season. It is worth travelling such a long distance to play a course of such quality. I fell in love with the place and the people immediately – and my record tends to underline that point!
“I won’t be playing in Sydney next week so it’s a lot of travelling for one tournament, but I think it’s a fantastic event. The Vines is everything a course should be, while Tony Roosenburg, the promoter, makes sure that the tournament lives up to the venue. I really do enjoy it.”
Björn is unequivocal in his assertion that the closing stretch between the 15th and 18th represents “one of the best and most testing” on the European Tour. He said: “Every hole poses a difficult challenge and can trip you up. There is no shortage of drama on those holes.
“Driving is very, very important because the fairways are rock hard and you need a lot of control to keep the ball on them. The greens are fantastic – very slopey and very fast. Just what we need after a long, cold northern European winter. There is nothing I dislike about the design and one of the biggest problems is the heat.
“At this time of year it can get uncomfortably hot and we can be grateful for the fact that it is often quite windy, which makes the heat more bearable. If it’s calm, it often feels too hot to play golf.”
That famous local breeze, colloquially known as the ‘Freemantle Doctor’ helps mop some of the sweat from brows, fevered by the prospect of playing the final four holes on the course.
Björn added: “I love the front nine, but for me things really warm up at the 15th, a challenging par four which requires a long driver over bunkers to find the ideal spot to approach the green.
“The 16th is a great par three. The green is about 50 metres long and club selection is all important. There is a lake to the right of the green so anything hit with an exaggerated fade can land in the water.
“At the 17th, the water is on the left off the tee to a sloping fairway and many players take an iron off the tee for safety. A very difficult hole.
“The par five 18th is undoubtedly the signature hole. It is everything a finishing hole should be with water down the left and a lake in front of the green. Anything can happen – a three-shot swing is possible if somebody makes eagle and another person bogeys. The crowds are always guaranteed plenty of excitement.
“I know that was the case when Ian Woosnam, Ernie Els, José Maria Olazábal, Padraig Harrington and Peter Baker were all in with a chance and I scraped home by one shot with a final 74.”
Björn should have been Down Under last month, but his foot operation in Denmark put paid to that. He revealed that the surgery to remove “some calcification on the foot” was a success, but he still has to be careful.
“It was in an awkward place and made walking very difficult” he explained. “I still find it uncomfortable but its getting better all the time. It can flare up occasionally but thanks to the surgery I feel I have the problem under control.”
That being the case, Björn may well make the transition from the operating table to the winner’s circle once more without putting a foot wrong.