Golf: US Open - Hjertsted's misadventures

John Huggan watches a Swede coming to terms with his exile
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The Independent Online
NOTHING MUCH in life has come easy for Gabriel Hjertstedt. Since his parents transplanted him from his native Sweden to Australia at the age of 11, he has had more than his share of ups and downs.

Early in his career, in an effort to save money, Hjertstedt was sleeping in his car, wearing his waterproof suit to fend off the cold. Four years ago, after two relatively successful seasons on the European Tour, he underwent oral surgery to repair a dislocated joint in his jaw. That condition, combined with bouts of hypertension, cost him his Tour card.

He returned to competitive golf in 1996 on the US Tour after finishing ninth at the qualifying school. The following year, however, brought new meaning to the word struggle. By September, Hjertstedt had won less than $40,000, a pittance by US standards. Then, at the BC Open in upstate New York, he did something no Swede had done before - win a US Tour event. The $234,000 cheque brought his season's earnings to $279,624 and, more crucially, gave him a two-year tour exemption.

He needed it. In 1998, Hjertstedt plunged to 157th on the money list and began this year under pressure. His first six tournaments were a mixed bag - four missed cuts and one top-20 finish. Then, in the week when the world's top-64 players were competing in the first World Championship event in California, Hjertstedt went instead to Arizona and won the Tucson Open.

The reward this time was another two-year exemption and the biggest cheque of his life, $495,000. There has even been talk of a Ryder Cup spot, although one feels that the European skipper Mark James may have to burn his two picks on Jesper Parnevik and, perhaps, Sergio Garcia.

Another thing working against 27-year-old Hjertstedt is his quiet demeanour. A man of slight, almost scrawny build, he doesn't exactly scream "pick me". The wispy facial hair and the unkempt mop sticking out from beneath his baseball cap only add to the air of untidiness. And his swing isn't much to look at either.

Preceded by an exaggerated, stiff-arm waggle, which gives the impression of excess movement, Hjertstedt's method is, on closer inspection, a relatively simple affair though on the quick side for the purist.

So, it is no surprise to see him making the cut on his US Open debut. America's national championship traditionally rewards the steady while punishing the adventurous, even if Pinehurst, with its absence of truly thick rough, is hardly your typical US Open course. Hanging in there as others throw up their hands in despair is usually the only way forward.

Yesterday, he was first off with the American John Cook. A bogey at the first was followed by a double-bogey at the second, hardly the best of starts. Out in 40, five over the card, worse was to follow. After a promising birdie at the long 10th, Hjertstedt made a triple-bogey seven at the 13th, ironically the most innocuous hole on the back nine. Another bogey followed before a two at the short 15th brought him back to 15 over for the week. One more bogey at the short 17th saw him finish in 79. That sounds bad, but he insisted: "I didn't play that badly. The course is close to unplayable. The greens were not meant to be that fast."

Maybe James won't call after all, but it's all relative. Especially if you happen to be Gabriel Hjertstedt.