Thomas Bjorn focuses on future

SANDWICH, England -- The image of Thomas Bjorn, hand on hip, a golf ball just having rolled back to his feet in a bunker at Royal St. George's, always will be etched in the mind. How could it not?

He was three holes from hoisting one of golf's most important trophies, the Claret Jug in his grasp.

Then he left not one but two balls in that bunker at the 16th hole, and the world caved in around him. Ben Curtis became the unlikely winner of the Open Championship, and Bjorn's name became synonymous with major meltdowns.

Eight years later, Bjorn has returned to Royal St. George's for the first time. He never set foot on the grounds until this week and, frankly, didn't expect to be here. His father's death in May had his game in shambles, and he was the tournament's fifth alternate.

Then Tiger Woods withdrew, followed by Thomas Levet and Tim Clark and David Toms and, finally on Monday, Vijay Singh.

Bjorn was in, replacing the guy with whom he tied for second in 2003, a stroke behind Curtis. He was in at the place where he suffered his hugest disappointment. Then on Thursday morning, he went out and shot his best Open round ever, a 5-under-par 65, that has him tied for the lead with English amateur Tom Lewis on the same Sandwich leaderboard he reigned over for so long all those years ago.

How does it work out like this?

Undoubtedly, Bjorn, 40, had no desire to relive the nightmare of '03, when his best chance to win a major championship got swallowed up in the sand. It was painful enough that many wondered whether he would rather forgo a return trip to southeast England and the links that is hosting this championship for the 14th time.

"This is the Open Championship; where else would you want to be?" he said.

Of course he wanted to be here, history be damned.

Bjorn, a 11-time European Tour winner from Denmark, has twice finished second in golf's oldest tournament. He was also runner-up to Phil Mickelson at the 2005 PGA Championship. And 10 years ago, when Woods was at his best, Bjorn took down the game's best player at the Dubai Desert Classic.

But of course, what he is remembered most for is the Open here. What is not often recalled is that during the first round of that tournament, he had failed to extricate himself from a bunker on the 17th hole, slammed his club in anger in the sand -- and was penalized for doing so. He eventually made a quadruple-bogey 8.

He nonetheless found himself in the lead by 2 with three holes to play. His tee shot found a greenside bunker at the par-3 16th, and trying to play too fine a shot, Bjorn blasted out short of a hump on the green and saw it roll back to him. Then it happened again. When it was all over, Bjorn had made a double-bogey 5. Another bogey followed at the 17th, and he had played three holes in 4 over.

The Open was lost.

Bjorn had never returned to Royal St. George's until this week, choosing to play just one practice round.

On Thursday, with the pin in a different position at No. 16, Bjorn hit a 9-iron shot that he feared was short. But it landed over a bunker, took a nice hop, then trickled up near the hole, and he made a birdie. Sweet revenge?

"The hole owes nobody anything, and no hole in golf does, and no golf course does," Bjorn said. "I played that Open, and I played fantastic the whole week. I tried to hit the right shot every single time, and I didn't hit the right shot on 16. That happens in golf. That's the nature of this game. You've just got to deal with those things."

Bjorn said he felt he put the disappointment behind him quickly. He played well the rest of the year. But in 2004, at the European Open in Ireland, he walked off midround, the game getting the best of him as he said he was "fighting demons" on the course.

"Why do I have 500 thoughts running through my head when I should be thinking one shot at a time?" he later said.

Then the Open rolled around.

"I think the only really hard time I had with it was when I came back to Troon the year after," Bjorn said of the 2004 Open venue. "I felt that was difficult because it just became so fresh in the mind. The Open Championship."

Bjorn rebounded to win each of the next two years and had that close call at Baltusrol -- where he shot a 63 during the third round -- but there were no more victories until earlier this year at the Qatar Masters. Bjorn also earned a first-round victory over Woods this year at the WGC-Accenture Match Play before his father's death put his game on hold.

His dad died in May after a long illness. Bjorn missed the qualifying event at Sunningdale because of a back issue and has seen his swing suffer in recent weeks.

"Well, he meant a lot to me," Bjorn said, having to take a long pause to compose himself as tears flowed. "He would have been very proud of what I did today. That's all I've really got to say."

Bjorn made seven birdies and two bogeys on the day, including one at the last hole.

It was just one round, and Bjorn suggested that his game was not where he wanted it to be. Afterward, he was headed to the range to work with his coach, Pete Cowen.

Bjorn called his 65 "a massive step in the right direction," but clearly what everyone wants to know is how he deals with the emotion of playing at a place that ultimately was so cruel to him.

"It was eight years ago," he said. "A lot of people have asked me about what I feel about the 2003 Open. It's in the past. I've worked very hard in my career to get myself in those positions. I got in that position in '03, and that was my best chance to win a major championship.

"I've always promised myself I'll keep going and keep going. People can do whatever they want, write you off, and they can do whatever they think is the right way of looking at you. But when you live in a career that's ahead of you, you try and make the best of every single day. And that's what I've done."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.