The Ryder Cup: Perfect stage for Per-Ulrik

Tim Glover talks to the golfer likely to become part of a Swedish double act
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The Independent Online
It is unfortunate that they have the same name as a vegetable for, to the flippant, they invite comparisons in characteristics. Swedes are functional, boring, tasteless, don't see much daylight and lack a sense of humour. The same could be said of the people. They may be good at ice hockey, making reliable cars and chewing tobacco but do they give a puck about anything else? Plenty, in fact.

Since launching a concerted national drive into the world of professional golf, the Swedes have enriched the European tour not only with skill and flair but personality. When Great Britain and Ireland finally tired of the biennial bashing from the United States in the Ryder Cup in 1979 and re-emerged as Europe, the principle reason was to get the Spaniards on board, particularly Seve Ballesteros. It was not anticipated that Scandinavia would become a big player.

This week Ballesteros, who as captain preferred to have Jesper Parnevik in the team rather than a fellow countryman, the unfortunate Miguel Angel Martin, could well rely on a Swedish pairing in the foursomes and four- balls when the opening shots are fired at Valderrama.

Per-Ulrik Johansson quite likes the idea of partnering Parnevik although he'd be happy to play with Britt Ekland if he thought it would produce a point.

Jesper is the son of Sweden's top comedian: alas for Per-Ulrik, his father deals with chickens. "Jesper does unpredictable things," Per-Ulrik says. "He's always trying something different. He does a lot of tricks and is a magician with cards. He's also a very spiritual person."

While Parnevik has performed the trick of joining the team although he is not a member of the European tour, Johansson skated in on merit, timing his run perfectly. He won the Alamo English Open at Marriott Hanbury Manor in May but the clincher was the Smurfit European Open at the K Club, Co Kildare, last month.

A budding bon viveur, Johansson likes Co Kildare so much he's thinking of buying a local bakery. "I love the soda bread," he said, "just love it. And the fresh orange juice." Before he started drooling at the mouth, it should be explained that Johansson owes his Ryder Cup place to his performances at the K Club.

He kick-started his campaign by winning there last September, with an aggregate of 277, receiving pounds 125,000. When he successfully defended with an aggregate of 267, he won pounds 141,660. That is not just pounds 266,660, but Ryder Cup pounds. In the absence of anybody from the Republic, he could be the K Club's honorary representative in the Ryder Cup.

"There's a nice feel about the place," Johansson added. "The crowd... the hospitality... the breakfasts. When you wake up in the morning you feel so good and you begin to wonder if anything can go wrong. They're all small things but they add up to a big cake. It certainly helps. You can lose your head over small things."

Oh, and he likes the course. Johansson was 21 under par when he won there in August and said it felt so good "it was almost better than sex". His girlfriend Linda, a Swedish nurse, threatened to put him in traction. "I said almost," Johansson emphasised. "The point I was making that virtually every shot I hit went where I meant it go. It had never happened to me before."

In the second round he played with Ballesteros and Padraig Harrington, the Irishman who came so close to qualifying for the team. "It was a weird situation," Johansson said. "I knew I had to play pretty good. It was not my only goal and if I hadn't made it, it wouldn't have been a catastrophe. I want to get in contention in the majors and I've got at least 10 years to improve."

Johansson, who is 30 and looks a bit like Dennis Bergkamp, was on a golf scholarship to Arizona State University, where he played in the same team as Phil Mickelson, before getting his card at the European Tour qualifying school in 1990.

"Phil was the No 1 and I wasn't that good," Johansson said. They remain good friends and when they made their debuts in the Cup at Oak Hill two years ago, they were drawn against each other in the singles, in the final match. Mickelson won 2 & 1 but by that time the Cup was in Europe's hands.

"On the 17th green we heard a huge cheer and somebody said it's over. Phil and I hugged each other. It was pretty emotional. Phil had won yet he had lost. As I said it's not the kill it's the thrill of the hunt that counts."

When Johansson learnt he was the 12th and last man in the singles he couldn't understand the reasoning of Bernard Gallacher, the captain. "I was shocked. At first I thought he was joking and it was only later that I realised it was a very smart move. We were down and we couldn't afford to put our experienced players at the end."

With Europe fielding five debutants, the Swede arrives at Valderrama as a key player. "Before the last one I was playing badly but in matchplay you don't have to be on top of your game. You can go birdie, bogey and do alright. It's huge pressure but not the same as Jesper felt when he led going into the last round of the Open."

Johansson's home is Marbella, the haunt of the second division playboy. "I can't stand the Swedish winters," he said. "I thought about Florida or the south of France but I like the Spanish culture. In Marbella you can live whatever life you want to live. The food and the wine is excellent."

Eating and drinking is a recurring theme with Johannson. He's attached to Chateau des Vigiers, near the wine district of Bergerac. "If you like good food, wine and golf, it's the place to go," Johansson said. "The one thing I won't touch are olives. I ate one once, thinking it was a grape and chipped a tooth."

Living close to Valderrama, where another talented Swede, Anders Forsbrand, is the professional, Johansson knows the course better than most. All he needs now is some soda bread. "What I'd like," he said, "is for a baker in Dublin to ship me a regular supply of loaves. I'd pay for it."

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