- Associated Press - Thursday, July 14, 2011

SANDWICH, ENGLAND (AP) - He was always destined to be remembered around here as the guy who threw it away when it mattered most. Nothing Thomas Bjorn could do about that, especially when it looked as if he wouldn’t even play this year at Royal St. George’s.

During practice rounds this week, spectators munching on fish and chips in the concession area watched footage on giant TV screens of Bjorn trying to get out of the sand on the 16th hole the last time the British Open was held here.

No matter how many replays, the sad ending was predictably the same.

After perhaps the most improbable round of his career Thursday, Bjorn insisted that debacle never got him down, never drove him to despair. You want to believe him, but the fact he hadn’t set foot on these seaside links in the eight years since suggests he might still be in denial over the claret jug he let Ben Curtis walk away with.

You also want to hope he’s got enough left to make it to another Sunday and a better ending. The best guess, though, is that his opening round 65 was a one-off wonder by a 40-year-old determined to make the most _ if only for one day _ out of an unexpected last whack at a hole and course that treated him so cruelly before.

For a day, at least, Bjorn had a bit of revenge.

And for a day, at least, he was tied for the lead in the British Open.

“If I can last all the way until Sunday, well, only time will tell,” Bjorn said. “But I’m very, very delighted with today.”

If Bjorn somehow does last he could become the most unlikely winner since, well, Ben Curtis. Bjorn came here this week not only burdened by memories of the past but with a game in such disarray he couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He also came without a spot in the Open, getting in only Monday night when Vijay Singh withdrew because of injury.

He had no confidence and just one round on Royal St. George’s to prepare. The latter didn’t prove to be too much of a drawback because it’s a course he may never be able to forget.

Leading by two shots with three holes to play in 2003, he lost the biggest tournament of his life when it took him three shots to get out of the bunker on the par-3 16th. The shot wasn’t terribly difficult, but for Bjorn the moment was.

“One hand on the trophy and let it go,” he said afterward.

Bjorn’s career didn’t exactly fall apart in the aftermath of his biggest disappointment. He won a few European tournaments, contended in the 2005 PGA Championship and made a comfortable living playing golf. But he’s no longer a consistent threat on the European Tour, and he’s at a stage in his game and his life where the shots no longer come as easy as they once did.

“I’m always honest with you guys,” Bjorn said. “I’ve been very uncomfortable on the golf course for a long time.”

On a gray, breezy day Bjorn found his comfort zone early, getting under par with a birdie on the second hole and staying there the whole way. A short missed par putt on the ninth hole and a finishing bogey were his only mistakes.

Bjorn not only avoided the sand that cost him so dearly on the 16th hole, but made the final of three birdies in a row there.

Playing several groups behind Bjorn, Curtis _ who shot a fat 77 on the day _ found himself checking out what was going on.

“I looked up at the board and said, ‘Thomas is getting some payback,’” Curtis said.

That wasn’t the way Bjorn himself looked at it, not surprising because he’s spent eight years trying to suppress the memory of a major championship gone awry. He bristled at the thought that the birdie on 16 or his round were some sort of redemption, preferring instead to remember all the good shots that got him in position to possibly win.

The truth is Bjorn has been around long enough to understand that sometimes in golf things just can’t be explained.

“That hole owes nobody anything, and no hole in golf does, and no golf course does,” he said. “I played that Open, and I played fantastic the whole week. I tried to hit the right shot every single time, and I didn’t hit the right shot on 16. That happens in golf. That’s the nature of this game.”

On this day the game was kind to Bjorn, who also has been around long enough to understand that major championships are not won on Thursdays. The round was a hopeful start for a player who made the trip to the coast of England with his expectations set way low.

Winning on Sunday would be the ultimate triumph.

Maybe then he’ll finally admit that the golf course really did owe him one.

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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