Never mind the fact he’s a major champion, won eight European Tour titles or played in two Ryder Cups. According to Thomas Bjorn, the drive to Archerfield Links this week will really hammer home that Paul Lawrie has achieved something special in golf.
“It is a great thing to have your name on a tournament,” said Bjorn of something he experienced himself when sponsoring a Challenge Tour event in his native Denmark and now his fellow Ryder Cup vice-captain is enjoying for the second year in a row on the European Tour with the Aberdeen Asset Management Paul Lawrie Match Play, which starts tomorrow on the East Lothian coast. “I don’t think that until you get your name on a tournament you realise how important it actually is and how proud that makes you. I was actually thinking of it when I was driving here and saw the AA signs for the ‘Paul Lawrie Match Play’. Just imagine how cool that must make him feel, and I think you’ve definitely made it when you see an AA sign with your name on it.”
Lawrie’s management company, Swiss-based 4SPORTS & Entertainment, was pointed in the direction of Archerfield Links when an original plan to return to Murcar Links, where Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat won the inaugural event 12 months ago, had to be scrapped.
Due to the fact he’s preparing for the Olympics in Rio, Aphibarnrat isn’t defending his crown but, with three of the world’s top-50 players, including Ryder Cup contenders Matt Fitzpatrick and Chris Wood, in the 64-man field, the Aberdonian has secured a stronger overall line-up than last year.
“Sergio [Garcia] put his name to the Spanish Open and Rory [McIlroy] has done the same with the Irish Open, and it does help in the sense of what we are trying to do in terms of getting the players involved,” said Bjorn, not just speaking as a competitor this week but also in his role as the European Tour’s tournament committee chairman.
“[European Tour chief executive] Keith Pelley has said for a long time now that it’s about players first. Getting the players more involved in the Tour has been a key thing for him, and I think this is a great way of doing it.
“Paul has had this idea for years and it’s great for the Tour that he has come with the idea rather than the other way around. Any tournament is difficult getting off the ground, but, now this one is, I think it will grow and I think it will also be easier for Paul to attract a field in the future. There’s so much big golf around the world at the moment, so it obviously depends where it falls in an individual’s schedule. But I think we would all do anything to support each other.”
The way Lawrie supports golf at grass-roots level is possibly second to none on the European Tour. His junior foundation in the north-east has now been replicated by Stephen Gallacher in the Lothians and Borders while Lawrie, through the two golf centres that now bear his name, one on the outskirts of Aberdeen and the other in Banchory, also provides support to around a dozen Scottish professionals. “I think it’s different for everyone, but I definitely think you get to an age where you start realising what the game has given you,” said Bjorn. “When you are 25, you are focusing on winning golf tournaments and trying to win majors. Paul has watched his own kids playing a lot of golf and I think you start realising how easy it is to give something back.
“I think all the top players do something in that respect. Some do it through charities while it is definitely becoming more fashionable to have foundations. I think it is important that players do these sort of things. It also gives purpose to yourself as well, because we often have a lot of free time.” As well as being competitors themselves, both Bjorn and Lawrie will also be wearing their Ryder Cup hats this week, having been appointed by captain Darren Clarke at the same time as Padraig Harrington earlier in the year and subsequently being joined in Europe’s backroom team by Ian Poulter and, most recently, Sam Torrance.
English duo Fitzpatrick and Wood head into this tournament occupying automatic spots. But with the heat having been turned up in recent weeks by the likes of Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Soren Kjeldsen and now Tyrrell Hatton after his brace of top-10 finishes in The Open and the US PGA Championship, strong showings at the top-class East Lothian venue would be helpful for the prospective rookies.
Speaking before he was drawn against Fitzpatrick, winner of both the British Masters and Nordea Masters during the qualifying campaign, in the pick of tomorrow’s first-round ties, Bjorn encouraged the two Hazeltine hopefuls in action this week to try to just let things happen rather than trying to force the issue.
“They’ve just got to go out and play,” said the 45-year-old, who played on three winning Ryder Cup teams, including the 2014 match at Gleneagles. “They have got to go and try to take the opportunity rather than worry about the possibility of failing.
“You’ve got to go on that golf course and show you want to be on that team. Darren has spoken to them both and I think these two players do want to grab this opportunity. Sometimes the Ryder Cup can get in the way of you being a golfer so they’ve just got to be focused and try to take the opportunity they’ve given themselves.
“You never know if an opportunity like this will come again, though with these two you would like to think it will.”