The duel in the desert may go down in the history books for a far more significant reason than just for proving Tiger Woods to be human.
Thomas Björn’s truly magnificent triumph after four days stalking the king of the golfing jungle marked a coming of age for the great Dane. It came less than a year after he had suffered the entire opposite in the company of the World Number One.
Björn’s memory still carried the scars of that ill-fated meeting in the third round of the US Open at Pebble Beach. It was his first bout of Saturday contention in a Major and, alongside Woods, he could not handle the situation. His mind was anywhere but on the job and as his concentration wavered, the shots mounted - all 82 of them.
Lesser men would have considered throwing themselves off the Pebble Beach rocks into the Pacific, but when the mists cleared from Björn’s mind, realisation set in. If he was ever going to meet his objective of being one of the world’s best golfers, he would have to learn to live and play with them and they came no better than Woods.
Björn dedicated himself to that end. “You have to get used to the 250 yards three irons and the drives which go 340 yards into the wind,” he said. “Your own game can get dragged down watching somebody that impressive.”
Long before the final round on the banks of The Gulf, Björn had shown he had learned his lesson and there was no great gulf in class. There would be no intimidation factor this time.
The duo were paired with one another for the first two rounds and Björn could have been forgiven for wondering what on earth he had been let in for again. Woods shot 64-64, but Björn refused to bend and was only two shots back when the pairings were made for the third round.
Björn would have preferred a break from the Woods circus - all bodyguards and bustle - but his own prowess had denied it him. They set off in tandem again and this time the European outscored the American 67 to 68. They would be together again for a fourth straight day.
While Padraig Harrington and Ian Woosnam offered early signs of intent, Björn prepared himself mentally on the range. Just minutes before tee-off Björn received a gentle reminder of what he faced. Coach Pete Cowen’s words hit him in the middle of his psyche. “This is what all those long hours on the range are for,” said the blunt Yorkshireman.
“It might not be a Major or the biggest tournament in the world, but it’s still big and it is you against the best golfer in the world.”
Björn knew this was his time, his chance to follow Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood and beat arguably the greatest golfer there has ever been. His time to announce himself. He let nobody down.
The duel was relentless, but Woods headed into the back nine with a two shot lead and one hand on the giant, silver coffee pot. Björn bided his time and then pounced. He knew he had to birdie 17... and did. He knew he had to launch the perfect drive down 18... and did. How would Woods, whose lead had evaporated, respond? For once, the intimidator became the intimidated.
Woods made a wrong club selection, took driver instead of three wood and ended in territory known only to David Attenborough. When Tiger’s third shot landed in water, Björn knew not only that he was the champion, but that he would never again be haunted by what had happened in the US Open.
Björn had spent four days in the company of the great one and would live to tell the tale over and over again. Only three of 26 players had ever bettered Woods on the occasions he had gone into the last round leading. Now there were four.
There were plenty more happy to help him celebrate and he rewarded their ovation for him in the bar afterwards by buying all the 400 or so revellers a drink. They had come to watch Woods, but they left saluting another true champion.
Never again would Björn feel intimidated or uncomfortable in the company of Woods. “I now know I can look him in the eye and beat him,” he said. It was a wonderful feeling.Martin Hardy
This article has been reproduced from The 14th Edition of The European Tour Yearbook which can be purchased at a special price direct via the Order Form.