Golf: First Night - Jarmo Sandelin: The maverick of the fairways

Europe's newest Ryder Cup player will test the team ethic. By Tim Glover

Tim Glover
Saturday 19 June 1999 23:02

JARMO SANDELIN'S victory in the German Open in Berlin last weekend, which secured his place in Europe's Ryder Cup team, is another milestone for golf in Sweden, but not everybody will be celebrating his inclusion. Indeed, Mark O'Meara, not to mention Lee Westwood, might view the development with a degree of trepidation.

Sandelin does not fit the Scandinavian stereotype. He was born in Imatra in Finland, took out Swedish citizenship, is attached to the Stockholm Golf Club and lives in Monaco, the tax-free principality which has become fashionable for high earners, particularly professional golfers. And, damn it all, he wears crocodile skin golf shoes and, occasionally, see- through shirts. Sandelin gives the impression that he and Monte Carlo are natural soul-mates. He is not exactly allergic to the limelight.

The Ryder Cup, with its almost irresistible format of matchplay in foursomes, fourballs and singles with the them and us (or Europe and the US) punch line, is the nearest golf gets to a bare-knuckle fight and Sandelin's qualification for the first time has made the confrontation even more intriguing.

For the last two years Sandelin has been involved in controversial incidents at the Lancome Trophy on the outskirts of Paris. After O'Meara had won the tournament in 1997, finishing a stroke ahead of Sandelin, a television viewer in Sweden noted that, on the 15th green in the final round, O'Meara, facing a two and a half foot putt, had replaced his ball half an inch closer to the hole than had been indicated by his marker.

Sandelin wrote to O'Meara, sent a video recording of the incident and asked for an explanation. O'Meara insisted he had not intended to gain any advantage and sought advice from the US and European Tours, who informed him that the tournament was over and the result stood. Sandelin, however, did not let the matter rest. He went public with the story and demanded, to no avail, that O'Meara should hand back the trophy and the prize money. In some locker-rooms this led the American to be saddled with the cruel sobriquet "O'Nearer".

Last September at the same event - and after O'Meara had won the Masters and the Open Championship - Sandelin was embroiled in another argument, this time with Westwood. As they signed their cards after the third round, Westwood pointed out that as Sandelin went to tap in a short putt on the second green the ball had moved. That evening both players were summoned by John Paramor, the chief referee, to stage an action replay on the lawn of their hotel in Versailles. "We investigated an allegation that the ball had been addressed prior to its moving but it was not proved," Paramor said.

Sandelin's defence was that although the ball moved he had not addressed it and therefore did not have to replace it. "I never ground my club when I take tap-in putts," he said. "I looked Westwood in the eye and he still maintained that I did it. I don't appreciate it when one player doesn't trust another."

Sandelin, who learned an hour before his tee time in the final round that he would not be disqualified, shot 63 to finish joint second with, among others, O'Meara. None of this will be lost on Mark James, Europe's captain for the match against America at Brookline, near Boston, in September.

Sandelin was a dab hand at crazy golf before switching to the real thing at the age of 13. He turned professional in 1987, winning the Finnish PGA Championship six years later, but his breakthrough came with victory in the Novotel Tournament in France in 1994, which enabled him to graduate from the Challenge Tour and put an end to the annual cycle of attendance at the Qualifying School. The following year he took full advantage of his new-found status with a maiden victory on the European Tour, in the Turespana Open Canarias, beating off the challenge of Seve Ballesteros.

It made the front pages of the newspapers in Stockholm, coinciding with a public notice from the tax authorities in the same publication announcing that they urgently needed to contact him. Sandelin's company, Sweden Golfing and Trading, had gone into liquidation and the authorities were claiming about pounds 3,000 in unpaid taxes.

Thus Sandelin's win in the Canary Islands could not have come at a better time and that season he went on to earn more than pounds 200,000 winning the Rookie of the Year Award. In 1996 he won pounds 131,000, in 1997 pounds 185,000 and last year pounds 231,000, improving his stroke average with every season.

Some people play with an extra long putter. Sandelin's trademark is an elongated driver which protrudes obtrusively from his bag and, a la John Daly, he uses as many as five wedges, ranging from 49 degrees to 68 degrees. He drove the ball huge distances - during practice at St Andrews he was accused of breaking the window of a car which was more than 400 yards away - with a club measuring 60 inches, 16 inches longer than a standard driver.

"I wasn't strong enough to control it," he said. "You need to be a gorilla." Further modifications resulted in a 52in titanium driver which he has been using this year to great effect. Ernie Els, at 6ft 3in two inches taller than Sandelin, observed that if he were to use anything longer than a 44in driver he would have trouble keeping the ball on the planet.

At the age of 32 Sandelin is playing the most consistent golf of his career with victories in the Spanish Open in April and the German Open and has three other top-10 finishes. With earnings in excess of pounds 320,000, it is no wonder he has based himself in Monaco.

In the Spanish Open he shot 66, 66, 66 and 69 (21 under par) to win by four strokes and in the German Open, after finishing at 14 under, he held his nerve to defy the South African Retief Goosen on the first hole of a sudden-death play-off.

"It's hard to put into words what qualification for the Ryder Cup means to me," said Sandelin, who climbed to third in the points table, "I know it's going to be tough but hopefully I can handle it, I'm a lot better prepared than a couple of years ago. I don't have to waste too much energy on things outside golf."

When Sandelin makes his Cup debut at the Country Club in Brookline, one of the ancestral homes of golf in America, he may have to make a few adjustments. Will he be allowed, for example, to employ his regular caddie, his girlfriend Linda? If so, he would be the first player in the history of the Ryder Cup to sleep with his caddie.

Then there's the possibility of a grudge match with O'Meara, although it seems unlikely that Sandelin will be paired with Westwood. And the crocodile shoes will not sit well with the team uniform.

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