Golf: Ryder Cup: All change as Sandelin settles for orthodox style

The Finnish-born extrovert has cast aside his snakeskin shoes and forsaken other trappings of colourful individuality to become a team player at last.
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LAST WEEK'S preliminary team dinner in Versailles was the first time most of the other members of the European Ryder Cup side had encountered Jarmo Sandelin outside normal business hours. "He's quite a character," Colin Montgomerie said. "We have a team of characters."

Indeed, with Sergio Garcia, Jean Van de Velde and Jesper Parnevik, not to mention Monty and Jose Maria Olazabal, there are plenty of uninhibited personalities knocking around the team-room at Brookline. But no one is quite like Sandelin. "One day I will write my book, the story of Jarmo. `Is he so evil? by Jarmo Sandelin'.

"My life story is so long. You would not believe what I have seen with my eyes, where I have been, it's amazing. There is nothing this week that is going to hurt me more than some of the experiences in my life. I lost my father, my mother passed away. If I really get nervous, I think about my mum and then it will feel like a normal round of golf with my friends."

The first Finnish-born golfer to play in the Ryder Cup, the 32-year-old is also one of the most extrovert. He grew up in Sweden and took out citizenship in that country but his childhood was not easy. Golf was an escape and he is self-taught since he started in the game aged 13. He quickly found he had an advantage with his prodigious hitting.

After turning professional in 1987, he graduated from the Challenge Tour seven years later. Within a couple of months on the main circuit the following season he had his first tour win, remarkably beating Seve Ballesteros in the Canaries Open.

While his victory was front-page news in Sweden, the newspapers were also running public notices that Sandelin's whereabouts was being sought by the tax authorities. They were still seeking pounds 3,000 after a company he owned had gone into liquidation.

At the 1996 Dunhill Cup, Sandelin tangled with Phil Mickelson. The American did not like the rifle-shooting routine Sandelin engaged in when he holed a putt. He holed a lot of putts that day. "You should show me more respect," Mickelson told his opponent.

"They said I aimed my putter against him but that is not true," Sandelin explained. "I never in my life aimed my putter at anyone. If I aimed it at the hole it was because I was happy I made the putt."

There was another confrontation with an American after Mark O'Meara won the Lancome Trophy two years ago. A television viewer in Sweden noticed O'Meara replace his ball half an inch closer to the hole than the position of his marker. Sandelin, who believed the American should be disqualified and the trophy given to him, sent a letter and a video to O'Meara, who had become Masters champion by that time and was renamed "Mark O'Nearer".

But at the same tournament the following year, in which Sandelin also came second, the Swede was accused by Lee Westwood of an indiscretion. Westwood thought the ball had moved after Sandelin had taken up his putting stance. The third member of the group, another Swede, backed up his countryman.

Sandelin's controversies were given plenty of airings during a recent three-week stint in the United States. "I read all this stuff that people hate me," he said, "but every single person I met was so nice. They must be so great actors. I just live my life the best way I can to make sure I am happy and my closest friends and family are happy."

Belts are one of the things that make him happy. Part of his preparation for the Ryder Cup was to nip over to Milan from his home in Monte Carlo and buy a couple of belts, priced pounds 700 and pounds 1,000. "They are specially made, with silver buckles," he said.

Eyebrows were raised when Sandelin wore green, pointed-toed snakeskin golf boots and see-through shirts. "I'm just a regular guy who likes clothing and belts. It's lucky I don't like latex or leather, or whatever, that would be a very scary scenario for the tour."

Sandelin has decided not to wear his snakeskin boots this week. After two wins earlier this year to make the team, there are signs he is conforming. He has taken on a regular caddie, Tim King, for the match in place of his girlfriend Linda, and he has shaved two inches off his 52-inch driver. Practising at home, he got friends to talk while he was hitting shots.

Tom Watson was a hero when he was growing up - "I liked him better than Jack Nicklaus" - and though he hated seeing Europe lose Ryder Cups, he loved the intensity of the matches. This week he may have to sit out most of the series, or he might just be the star of the show. "This is a dream come true," he said.

"I've come a long way, a very long way. Inside, I always believed that if I worked hard and be patient I would have a chance. I don't like to fail. I hate to fail at whatever I do. Whatever I go in for, I really want to succeed. I can't stand it when I can't do something I want to do in a good way. You can play bad but do it in a good way, keep your head up.

"I played ice hockey and football but the thing I didn't like was that the team spirit was not always there. There were people who didn't do their best or were tired and I didn't like that. If you are in the team you make sure you back up every guy in the team because then they are going to back up you. You go for everything you have. I don't think those sort of people should be in the team, they should be doing an individual sport.

"I like to think I am a team-player but I didn't fancy that others didn't do their best every single time. I wanted to make sure that if I was going to do a sport, if I had to count on someone, it should be up to me. But with the Ryder Cup, the team is coming together really well. I am not thinking as an individual, it is the team that matters.

"I don't mind who I play with. I have to make sure I play the best golf ever I can. For sure, there is going to be a lot of emotion in the air. I'll be very emotional, in good and bad times. But if I look at everything that has happened in my life, it seems to be a preparation for the Ryder Cup."