Golf: Parnevik in pursuit of perfection

Andy Farrell meets a player at his peak as Carnoustie calls: Countdown to The Open: Mind games at work as major talent strives to be first Swede to triumph
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JESPER PARNEVIK has taken up playing bridge. "I would say it is the golf of card games," said the Swede. "It is very frustrating and can make you look very stupid a lot of the time. Just when you think you have it, you realise the process of perfecting it is endless. I would not say I'm great at it. My friends beat me pretty good. We usually end up screaming at each other. And, as with golf, you should never play a mixed foursomes bridge tournament with your wife."

Parnevik is a saner person than he is sometimes portrayed as. The 34- year-old Swede is, for instance, a devoted family man. "They travel with me all the time," he said. "My wife, Mia, is very supportive. She works hard to enable me to focus on the golf during tournaments."

The names of their three daughters, however, are just one hint that an enquiring mind is at work. The eldest, four, is called Peg, the second Penny and the two-month-old baby is Pebble Peach.

Then, apart from the upturned peak of his cap, there is all the other stuff that has come out over the years. Parnevik believes in reincarnation, meditates while the dawn breaks over the ocean near his home in South Palm Beach, Florida. He eats volcanic sand to cleanse his system, has had his blood analysed by radiation, uses stroboscopic glasses, has had his metal fillings replaced with ceramic ones to reduce mercury levels and has been a pupil of the Russian philosopher who was Mikhail Gorbachev's mentor.

The trouble is, Parnevik has a wandering as well as a wondering mind. Which is how he came to miss a two-foot putt at Loch Lomond last Thursday while considering how much more rope you would need to encircle the earth atop three-foot stakes than to do so on the ground.

When leading a pounds 1m tourn-ament this might smack of carelessness and, indeed, there are days when Parnevik misses so many short putts that it only emphasises the quality of his play tee-to-green. With two wins on the US tour and four in Europe, he has become one of the game's finest ball-strikers and that, along with his willingness to accept occasionally horrendous conditions, makes Parnevik a perennial threat at The Open. In six Opens, he has been in the top-24 five times and the runner-up twice, at Turnberry in 1994 and Royal Troon in '97.

"I really enjoy playing the links type of golf," he explained. "Growing up in Sweden, everything was always wet and muddy and then I came to Britain for junior events and the turf was perfect, I thought. The sound was so different when you made contact, everything felt so good when you flushed the ball. I could have stayed on the range all day because I enjoyed the feeling so much.

"The strong point of my game is usually to control my ball flight. When I need to, I can compress the ball and get a driving flight out of it and that's what you need at The Open to get that de-lofting, shooting shot."

But there is also the need to combat extreme conditions, such as the howling gale at Royal Birkdale last year, where he finished fourth. Parnevik's 72 on the Saturday was one of the day's best scores. "You had tee shots and all you were trying to do was hit a low, drilling snap-hook. There is a lot of that.

"You can have a shot from 150 yards and you stand there with a three- iron trying to slice it 50 yards to have a chance to hold it against the wind. You have to free up your mind so much to even think about hitting those kind of shots.

"The first few times you play, you think the wind won't blow that hard, I'll aim a little bit left and the ball shoots off the other way. I enjoy it and think it is a lot of fun. You have so many options around the greens. At Troon, I putted one from 60 yards off the green and two-putted. You never see those shots anywhere else. Sometimes you wish you had a putter with a driving shaft on it just to keep it on the ground and keep it going forward. I think I play my best golf when I am playing a lot of different shots and not lulled into boring target golf.

"It's like Seve [Ballesteros]. He is most focused when he is out in the woods. That's when he hits some of his best shots, but when he is on the fairway, he doesn't know what to do. That's a little bit how my game is. When I get to picture those extreme, funny shots, that's when I play my best."

Parnevik departed the scenes of his two near-misses with differing emotions. "At Turnberry I really didn't expect to be up there. I remember I was in a trance somehow. I made five birdies on the back nine and all I could remember was telling myself to make more birdies. I couldn't do anything about Nick Price knocking in that huge putt on the 17th. What I thought was that it would top off my career to be able to feel what he felt then. That must be the best feeling ever on a golf course.

"Troon was different because I felt so strong going into The Open. Although I was not on top of my game, I felt like I was going to win the tournament. When I had a two-shot lead going into the last round I didn't feel anyone was going to catch me. And all of a sudden Justin Leonard got on a roll and I was playing catch-up for the rest of the day. It was very hard. At the 17th I made a bogey and after that it was all over. All the air went out of me."

Carnoustie will present a formidable test this week but, being Parnevik, he will enjoy every second of it. "The Open is the absolutely best tournament ever, I think. It is the way they build the grandstands. There is no other tournament that does it that way. There is this tunnel down the 18th fairway. When you get the applause and the cheers it is overwhelming almost. When you hole a putt, the roars are a hundred times higher than anywhere else.

"It would mean a lot for a Swede to win The Open. The only thing we are missing right now is a major win. Especially being so close, it would be very big, I'd say, if not for them it would be for me."