The outsider will let you in, but just barely and only on his
terms. A visit to his Monte Carlo flat, which is nestled in the
first turn of the route used in the Grand Prix, with a sweeping
view of the famous harbor, is out of the question. Even in
Sweden, the country where he came of age as a golfer, the
country for which he will carry the flag at next week's Ryder
Cup--though it's not the land of his birth--even there the wall
does not come down. To open up his hotel room, and by extension
his life, to prying eyes is unthinkable. No, the outsider will
let you in, but it will be in the middle of a bustling hotel
lobby, where he can sink into an overstuffed black leather chair
and be alone amid the crowd, which is how he likes it. "Ask me
anything you want," Jarmo Sandelin says in his halting English
and with a gracious sweep of his hand. "I will answer
everything. That is my problem, you know. Sometimes my mouth
gets going so fast no air has the chance to travel to my brain."
Sandelin laughs heartily, a joke at his own expense. He knows
his reputation, especially in the U.S. "A wild man. No?" he
says. "A crazy man. No?"
This is an article from the Sept. 20, 1999 issue
Were it not for that image, Sandelin's journey from teenage
outcast to a place among the game's elite would be the kind of
corny inspirational tale that golf coaches the world over recite
to their charges. This season Sandelin, 32, has emerged as a
force on the European tour, and with his length, sublime putting
touch and hyperaggressive style of play, he could be a key
figure in the Ryder Cup, even as a rookie. Still, there is
almost nothing Sandelin can do on the course now to erase his
reputation off it: a court jester, a human punch line. He is a
man of such curious standing that when he touched off a
transatlantic feud by accusing Mark O'Meara of mismarking his
ball at the '97 Trophee Lancome and thus cheating his way to
victory, O'Meara adopted a standard line of defense: "Just look
at the player who is drumming all of this up," he would say, as
if that's all there was to it.
If you really look at Sandelin, then, what do you find? "He's so
misunderstood," says Gabriel Hjertstedt, the two-time PGA Tour
winner who grew up competing against Sandelin. "He's a good guy,
sweet really. He's different in a sense. Not to a normal person,
but to most golfers. He had it so tough coming up that he got
hardened. Everything you see is a pose to hide the scars."
Sandelin was born in Imatra, Finland, and lived there until he
was seven, when the family moved across the border to Stockholm
so his father, Lauri, could pursue construction work. It was a
trip of less than 400 miles, but Sandelin suddenly found himself
in alien environs. "It is like in California," says Fredrik
Johnson, Sandelin's Monaco-based agent. "The Finns are like the
Mexicans. They are looked down upon because they come over with
no money and are forced to live together in poor areas and take
whatever jobs they can get." Asked for his early memories of
Sweden, Sandelin lets out a hard laugh. "A lot of good
fistfights," he says.
Sandelin found escape in, of all things, miniature golf. In
Sweden they take their mini-golf seriously, eschewing windmills
and fire-breathing dragons in favor of manicured courses and
national tournaments. Sandelin was a natural, and when he was 13
his mother, Sinikka, obtained Swedish citizenship for him so he
could be a member of the national junior team. (His brother,
Jerry, also became a Swedish national, but his sister, Brigitta,
and their parents remained citizens of Finland.) For three years
Sandelin played for the team, occasionally having to test his
stroke on courses with marble putting surfaces. (No wonder, as
fellow Swede Per-Ulrik Johansson says, "Jarmo is a great, great
putter. From 10 feet in he is the best in the world.")
When Sandelin was 14, two events changed the course of his life.
His 43-year-old father, a smoker, died of lung disease, and
Jarmo was rudderless. Soon after, he happened upon a driving
range, his first introduction to real golf. Sandelin took out
his anger and frustration on the range's striped balls, and for
the first time he saw his future.
Because Sandelin was already a teenager, he was not welcomed
into the vaunted Swedish Golf Federation, which has constructed
so many world-class players on its assembly line. "If you're not
in their system from the very beginning, forget it," says
Sandelin. "They don't want you." Did his Finnish origins play a
part in his exclusion? "It didn't help, that's for sure," he says.
So Sandelin worked on his game alone, competing in club events
and local tournaments. One player who watched him from a
distance was impressed by his grit, and still is. "No one
believed in Jarmo except for Jarmo," says Jesper Parnevik. "He
has had to work for everything because the federation did
nothing for him at all. They gave him no support because they
thought he was so bad. We all did. Everybody laughed at him, but
he always said he was going to make it. Even then he had a
cockiness that wouldn't go away."
"My dad wasn't a golfer, but he gave me the best advice I have
ever gotten," says Sandelin. "When I was very young he told me,
'Don't ever let anyone intimidate you. Tell them to back off.'
They are words I've always remembered."
After only six years of playing the game, Sandelin turned pro in
1987, when he was 20. He suspected he wasn't ready but was
seduced by dreams of easing the financial pressure on his
mother, who worked several jobs to support the family. For six
long years Sandelin haunted the European Challenge tour (the
equivalent of the U.S. Nike tour), leaving behind a trail of
debts and smashed golf clubs. Funds were so scarce that during
the winters he worked cleaning office buildings for a company
run by his brother. Even during the season he was known to work
the night shift on Mondays and Tuesdays between tournaments.
Some of Sandelin's financial duress was self-inflicted, as he
was already something of a dandy. "I always stayed in a decent
hotel even though I probably should have been sleeping in my
car," he says. "I knew if I slept somewhere nice, I would go to
the course feeling good about myself, and that has always been
important to me."
In 1993 Sandelin finally broke through on the Challenge tour
with an emotional victory in the Finnish PGA Championship. The
following year he won another event and earned a promotion to
the European tour. "There was no possible way I was going to
fail," he says of his rookie year, 1995. "I couldn't. It was my
one and only chance, and I knew it." In only his fourth
tournament, the Turespana Open, he came from two down at the
start of the final round to trump Seve Ballesteros on
Ballesteros's home turf. The first thing Sandelin did with his
winner's check was buy his mother an apartment in Helsinki.
Emboldened by the victory, Sandelin decided to play the U.S.
Tour in 1996, and the experience was a disaster. He made one cut
in 14 starts, earning $2,509 to finish 360th on the money list.
Sandelin's self-taught swing crumbled amid the tighter fairways,
taller rough and more abundant trees. It didn't help that he was
swinging a cartoonish 57-inch-long driver. (The standard shaft
length is 43 1/2 inches.) Sandelin salvaged the season with a
victory back on the European tour, at the Madeira Island Open,
but coming home from the U.S. with his tail between his legs had
a profound effect.
"The best thing that ever happened to me was going to America
and playing like s---," he says. "I learned all my weaknesses."
Upon his return, Sandelin sought--for the first time--outside
instruction, from Joakim Sabel, who's now the head pro at
Stockholm Golf Club, and worked hard to refine his jerky,
mechanical swing. Sandelin went winless in 1997 and '98, but his
action was becoming easier on the eyes. More important than the
change in mechanics was that Sandelin overhauled his attitude.
His obsession with length began to lessen as he shelved the
giant driver (it now hangs on the wall, like an oversized
marlin, at Stars and Bars, his favorite sports bar in Monte
Carlo), and he stopped trying to turn the ball over for extra
distance, instead playing a more controllable fade, a la David
Duval. "Four years ago I was like a jungle man," he says. "I
would go for it all the time. Now I try to control myself."
It has all come together for Sandelin this season. He has won
twice, the Spanish Open in April and the German Open in June,
and is now 12th on the European money list. The victory in Spain
was particularly notable because it came after he had taken two
months off to come to grips with the death of his mother. At the
trophy ceremony in Barcelona, Sandelin tearfully dedicated the
win--"This one and the next one and the one after that"--to
The passionate performance (he was 21 under par for the week)
was entirely in character. Sandelin thrives on adversity, which
has been the subtext of most of his finest moments in golf. Take
the '96 Dunhill Cup at St. Andrews, where he was first described
as Europe's bad boy. Playing at the august Old Course, Sandelin
nearly came to blows with Phil Mickelson during their match.
Sandelin was celebrating his frequent birdies by pretending that
his putter was a rifle. He claims he was only shooting at the
hole in a sort of obnoxious celebration, while Mickelson felt
the imaginary bullets were aimed at him. "I wasn't going to let
it go without saying something," Mickelson says. Walking off the
13th green "our noses touched, and we had words."
Sandelin confirms the incident. "I told him to f--- off," he
says. "I haven't spoken to him since and have no desire to do
The dustup became big news, but what no one remembers is that
Sandelin shot down Mickelson and also defeated Colin Montgomerie
and Nick Price that week. Likewise, one of the turning points of
Sandelin's career came at the '98 Trophee Lancome, the
tournament in which, a year earlier, he had come in second and
had his dispute with O'Meara. With plenty of bad mojo still in
the air, Sandelin himself was charged with breaking the rules by
his soon-to-be Ryder Cup teammate, Lee Westwood.
Sandelin's ball moved as he addressed a one-foot putt, and
Westwood insisted that Sandelin take a penalty stroke. Sandelin
claimed not to have grounded his putter, which would have left
him in the clear. An official ruled for Sandelin, but public
opinion was on Westwood's side. With a cloud hanging over him,
Sandelin shot a 63 the next day and wound up tying for second.
"It was the last time I doubted myself on a golf course," says
Sandelin. "Now when it gets tough, I know I'll get more focused."
That is exactly why those who know Sandelin think he will be such
an asset for Europe at the Ryder Cup, even though he figures to
be public enemy No. 1 in Brookline, Mass. "I can tell you, [the
hostility's] not going to bother him," says Parnevik. "He likes
it like that. The strength of his game is guts. That's the thing
he lives on."
Sandelin came to last month's PGA dead set on making a
triumphant return to the States, and he wanted to use the tough
conditions at Medinah as a warmup for the Ryder Cup. Turned out
on Thursday in a white velour shirt trimmed in pea green, with a
$1,500 jewel-encrusted Claudio Calestani belt, Sandelin spent
most of the first round hacking out of the rough on the way to a
77. On Friday he shot 72 to miss the cut. Sandelin's bad shot is
a fade that turns into a slice, no doubt exacerbated by the fact
that his driver is still a somewhat ludicrous 52 inches long. "A
couple of times I've wanted to tell him to get rid of that
driver," says Johansson. "He can't hit it--nobody can. He hits
his three-wood 280 yards and straight. That's good enough. It's
an image thing. It's very Jarmo to have that big driver."
It is also very Jarmo not to have anyone who feels he can go to
him with advice, even among the cliquish Swedes. Sandelin is
proud to be a lone wolf, and he says without self-consciousness
that he has no friends on either tour.
Next week Sandelin will join an exclusive fraternity, although
he doesn't see it that way. Listen to him discuss his American
foils. "I feel sorry for Mickelson and O'Meara," he says. "Think
about the pressure on them! They really have to kick my ass. If
they lose, at home? My god, imagine the shame. For me, to lose
is expected. It's no big deal because no one is rooting for me."
Actually, plenty of people will be rooting for Sandelin--his
teammates, his family and the whole of Europe. Forever the
outsider, he simply can't see it.
Since so many Ryder Cup players think they should be paid for
their services, we decided to put a price on the value of this
year's competitors to their teams. The players are listed in
order of qualification and with their Ryder Cup records.
$$$$$ = Solid gold
$$$$ = Preparing for IPO
$$$ = You get what you pay for
$$ = Big hat, no cattle
$ = Spare change?
Tiger Woods [U.S.] 1-3-1
We read that he really cares, but that's just prose on parade
Colin Montgomerie [EUROPE] 9-6-3
Let's hear it (you know he'll be listening) for the pride of
David Duval [U.S.] 0-0
Double D's still on the defensive after double-talk about
Lee Westwood [EUROPE] 2-3
He played every session in '97 and will have to be a he-man
Payne Stewart [U.S.] 8-7-1
A man who values tradition, he still wants a piece of Tony
Darren Clarke [EUROPE] 1-1
Always powerful but often streaky, Clarke needs to play like
Davis Love III [U.S.] 5-8-0
He's hurt and still living off the Putt in '93. Warm up Bob
Paul Lawrie [EUROPE] 0-0
He lucked out at Carnoustie but will be hittin' bricks in
Mark O'Meara [U.S.] 4-7-1
Hey, bud, if he doesn't win a match, he'll still have had a
Miguel Angel Jimenez[EUROPE] 0-0
Seve's assistant, 35, isn't really a rookie, and dig the skanky
Hal Sutton [U.S.] 3-3-3
Good field, no chip. His pitiful short game is a major
Jose Maria Olazabal [EUROPE] 14-8-3
Beware the injured golfer. Ollie + Sergio = Spanish Armada II
Justin Leonard [U.S.] 0-2-2
Face the facts: He's 1-8-3 when you add his Presidents Cup
Sergio Garcia [EUROPE] 0-0
No rough will help the boy wonder, who could steal this show,
Jim Furyk [U.S.] 1-2
He peaked in '98, but that goofy swing's an asset in match play
Jarmo Sandelin [EUROPE] 0-0
Talks tough, plays soft. He's way too erratic to be taken
Phil Mickelson [U.S.] 4-1-2
Rips Gentle Ben? Threatens writers? We're in Phightin' Phil's
Jean Van de Velde [EUROPE] 0-0
The U.S. strategy: Get him to 18. His putting, though, is no
Jeff Maggert [U.S.] 4-3
The Invisible Man was one of only three U.S. winners in Spain
Padraig Harrington [EUROPE] 0-0
He thinks the Dunhill and World cups have prepared him for this
Tom Lehman [U.S.] 3-2-2
He has never been on a winner, and this could be his last chance
Andrew Coltart [EUROPE] 0-0
A basket case during qualifying, he's a nice guy who'll finish
Steve Pate [U.S.] 0-1-1
Excellent choice, Ben. Pate's fearless, funny and a clutch
Jesper Parnevik [EUROPE] 1-1-2
Forget the gamesmanship. You don't want to get in his head
Ben Crenshaw [U.S.] 3-8-1
Will his young studs forgive him for ratting them out at
Mark James [EUROPE] 8-15-1
The team liked the way he stood up to Faldo...but seven
make it," says Parnevik. "Even then he had a cockiness."