Bjorn leaves bunkers far behind with record round

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The Independent Online

Thomas Bjorn yesterday holed a bunker shot from 40 feet for a birdie, turned to his playing partners and said: "If ever a shot was four days too late, that was it." He was referring - for the umpteenth time - to the pot bunker on the 16th hole of the Open at Royal St George's that almost swallowed him up.

On his first visit here, Bjorn established a course record of 64 in the first round of the Irish Open. His extraordinary performance contained an even more extraordinary nine birdies.

"I haven't walked off a golf course feeling as happy as I was today," he said. "That wasn't the greatest round of golf I've ever played, but for different reasons it's right up there with the best."

In the first two rounds here Bjorn is playing with the New Zealander Michael Campbell and the Dubliner Padraig Harrington. "They were very supportive," Bjorn said. "We did everything with a smile and that is just what I needed."

For some strange reason, Denmark's finest is now interrogated not on his excellent driving or iron play or putting, but on the use of the sand wedge that cost him victory at Sandwich.

"I'm a strong believer in myself as a bunker player," he said. "Those sort of things happen in majors. They don't happen anywhere else. That's why it's tough to win them. When I now look back at 16 - and I had another little think about it last night - it's not the bunker shots that bother me too much, it's that I was there in the first place. You know where the flag is. I hit a decent tee shot, but not a good one. Whenever you play in the Open you tell yourself to avoid the bunkers. If the Open ever comes to Portmarnock the Royal and Ancient will dig up the bunkers and make them twice as deep."

Bjorn found four bunkers yesterday and played them quite beautifully. On the longest course on the European tour he enjoyed the best of the conditions and his three-ball finished a combined 17 under par. No wonder they were smiling.

Campbell, who shot 66, said: "I was being towed along in Thomas' slipstream. He played great, putted so well and is obviously oozing confidence from last week. When you are on the crest of a wave ,you ride it for a while before you drop down. We spoke about what happened last week and he has put that behind him."

Having left the European Tour to take his game to a "higher level" in America, Campbell, who barely broke 70 on the US Tour, has decided to return to Europe. Harrington, who came in with a 69, told Bjorn and Campbell: "Thanks for making me look so bad."

Mark Roe, another who left Royal St George's with a ghost to exorcise, also shot 69, although on the scoreboard they had him at three over par instead of three under. It must be something in his demeanour. Had Roe, disqualified at Sandwich after his third round of 67, scored 69 in the last round he would have tied with Ben Curtis. Pointless speculation perhaps, but unavoidable nevertheless.

As for Bjorn, he said that the week was getting easier by the day. "It doesn't really matter how I played. It was all about coming out and facing everything. Now all of a sudden things have changed because I shot 64, but this week it's still about enjoying my golf.

"I am not here with 100 per cent focus on winning. I am here with a few other issues I have to deal with. It's not as if it just goes away. I'm very proud of what I did out there. I got a lot of support and I was very happy with it. I was playing with New Zealand's best player and the finest to come out of Ireland for a long time and obviously Padraig was going to get more support than anybody else, but the crowds were very fair to me and that's what you need. You need people on your side. There weren't any comments. In this country they know too much about the game to have a dig at you."

On the eve of the Irish Open, Bjorn overheard a young boy say: "There's the man that lost the Open." At this rate he might hear somebody say: "There's the man that's going to win the Irish Open."

IRISH OPEN (Portmarnock) Early leading first-round scores (GB and Irl unless stated): 64 T Bjorn (Den); 66 M Campbell (NZ); 67 P Broadhurst; 68 G Emerson, G Owen, P Price, S Khan, L Donald, S Gallacher; 69 C Rodiles (Sp), S Dyson, R Karlsson (Swe), W Bennett, M Roe, P Harrington, B McGovern, B Mason, D Lynn, J-F Remesy (Fr); 70 P Hedblom (Swe), A Raitt, A Atwal (India), M Mackenzie, Peter Lawrie, A Salto (Sp), I Poulter, D Gifford, J Moseley (Aus), P Fowler (Aus); 71 G Turner (NZ), J Bickerton, M Lundberg (Swe), J Spence, L James, N Dougherty, B Lane, R Green (Aus), D Park, P Nyman (Swe), C Schwartzel (SA), D de Vooght (Bel), G Clark, R Russell, S Struver (Ger), G Brand jnr, S Webster, M Brier (Aut); 72 S Webster, J-F Lucquin (Fr), J Clement (Swit), C Rocca (It), A Tadini (It), S Scahill (NZ), S Lyle, K Ferrie, J Walters, N Manchip, E Little, I Garbutt, B Rumford (Aus), H Stenson (Swe), P Baker.