By ERIC SODERSTROM
ORLANDO, Fla. – Bjorn Akesson is being mentioned all over Sweden this evening in the same sentences as Tiger Woods.
They include: “Björn Åkesson har kopierat Tiger Woods”, “I klass med Tiger” and “Björn Åkesson går i Tiger Woods fotspår,” all of which have the 18-year-old Arizona State-bound Swede following somewhere in the footsteps of perhaps history’s greatest golfer.
For those of you not reading this from snowy Scandanavia, the Swedish media are officially enthralled.
“I think it will be a very big deal, actually,” said Akesson, just minutes after dropping a 15-footer for birdie and a 3-and-2 victory over Sean Dale in the finals of the AJGA’s Polo Golf Junior Classic, a tournament Woods won in 1991.
Girls’s division: Hurst plays like pro, wins Polo
“It’s big,” said Swedish Golf Federation coach Peter Svallin.
After watching his putt make a last-second curve into the center of the cup, Akesson, looking perhaps like a schoolboy Henrik Stenson (who won his own match-play title at this year’s WGC Accenture), delivered a powerful fist-pump while screaming “Fan vad gott!”
“Damn, this feels good,” Akesson later translated. “That felt so good to make that one. I read it perfectly, hit it perfectly, it was good.”
Akesson hopped in a cart behind the 15th green at Ginn Reunion Resort’s Independence Course and headed back to the clubhouse. His first phone call was to the most interested sportswriter in Sweden: His father, Richard Akesson, who works for the daily newspaper Sydsvenskan in the Akessons’ hometown of Malmo.
“He’s not allowed to (write about me), but his colleagues are,” Akesson said, smilling.
Here’s where they should start: Late Thursday afternoon, when Akesson figured his time at Polo had finally run out.
David Chung, who has carried a strong match-play reputation with him ever since his surprise runner-up finish as a 14-year-old at the 2004 U.S. Junior Amateur, was standing on the 13th tee with a 4-up lead that should have made for an extra-tasty Thanksgiving turkey that evening.
Akesson had other birdies in mind: Four in a row, actually. He hit “one really good shot” to set up his first birdie on the par-4 13th. “Then after that, I just felt really good,” he said.
Chung was stunned. He grinded out a halve at the par-5 17th, only to watch Akesson slam his 9-iron approach to the 18th green 1 foot from the hole.
“I think he has a very clear feeling about his ambitions and what he needs to do to reach them, and there aren’t many 18-year-olds that have that,” said Svallin, who remembers Akesson’s maturity level being unusually high even at the age of 14.
“He’s very mentally strong. He can focus really hard and he can regroup himself pretty easily. He hit a couple very, very good shots at the end of every match really.”
Akesson’s three approach shots to end Friday’s final might as well have been fireworks. After taking a 1-up lead with a routine par at the 13th, Akesson pulled a 3-iron from his bag and landed his 210-yard second shot to the par-5 10 feet from the flagstick. He looked almost certain to win the hole until Dale converted a miraculous up-and-down from the waste bunker right of the green. Akesson’s putt fell low side.
“My irons have been good the whole week, my putter, not very good actually,” said Akesson, who defeated defending champion Morgan Hoffmann in the semifinals. “I got the ball very close to the whole, and that’s why I won.”
On the par-3 15th, he hit 6-iron to 4 feet and never had to putt. Dale three-putted from 50 feet and picked up Akesson’s ball marker.
After Dale’s approach to 16 sailed into the right rough, Akesson played an 8-iron over the top of the flag to 15 feet. He studied the line cautiously, noticing a bend in the lie at “the last meter,” he said. The putt never fell off line.
“It feels so good to win,” said Akesson, who was playing in his third Polo, losing in the second round last year to two-time AJGA player of the year Peter Uihlein. (Uihlein was knocked out in the first round by Norway’s Anders Kristiansen.) Akesson also lost on the third playoff hole of the 2006 British Boys final to England’s Matthew Nixon.
“I have too many second places, too many second places, so it was good to win,” he said.
A smile never left his face during the awards ceremony about 45 minutes later: “This is my last junior event,” he said, searching for the right words to say. “So next year, I’m a man.”
Everyone laughed, including his three Swedish teammates Pontus Widegren, Caroline Hedwall and Louise Larsson, who that morning woke up at 4:45 to take advantage of Black Friday sales at a couple local malls. They only got back to Reunion in time to see the last few holes of the match.
Widegren said he bought a lot of clothes and an iPhone, at the request of a friend back home. “I don’t think they’ve started to sell them in Sweden,” he said.
Widegren’s popularity rivals the iPhone when it comes to American college coaches. He made his first appearance in the United States at the 2006 Thunderbird International Junior, where he finished tied for 12th as a 15-year-old, and said Friday that he has now has been contacted by “all the top 20 schools.”
“It’s a luxury problem,” said Widegren, who was wearing a Ryan Howard Philadelphia Phillies shirt he bought at the Philadelphia International Airport, even though he didn’t know who Howard was. “It’s just cool,” he said.
Widegren was relegated to more shopping Friday morning only thanks to Akesson, who defeated his countryman 3-and-2 in the second round. The match was a throwback to 2002, when Swedes Niklas Lemke and Oscar Floren faced off the the finale. Lemke won that match, 3 and 2, then went on sign with Arizona State, where Akesson is also headed next fall. (Paula Creamer was the winner of the girls’ division that year.)
“All the players who play on the highest level in Sweden, most of them have ambitions to come here,” said Widegren, speaking of a tradition that Svallin said dates back 30 years. (Swedish schoolchildren begin learning formal English in the third grade.)
Akesson said he realized he wanted to go to school in the United States while playing at the European Boys Championship two years ago in Italy, where several American coaches had made the trip. The next thing he knew, he was on an official visit to Arizona State.
“It’s hot, I like it,” he said. (Akesson, who plays Ping equipment, also likes the 20-minute proximity of the Ping factory.)
It’s also a Swedish hot spot, going as far back as Ryder Cup player Per Ulrik Johansson, who won an NCAA Championship with Phil Mickelson in 1990. Nowadays, Sun Devils head coach Randy Lein seems to be signing Swedes at the rate of an NHL executive. (Akesson stopped playing hockey and soccer at age 15.)
Jesper Kennegard, who along with Akesson and Widegren led Sweden to a nine-shot victory over rival Norway at this summer’s Toyota Junior Golf World Cup in Japan, also enrolled at Arizona State this fall. Kennegard and Akesson will be roommates next year.
“Jesper is liking it very much,” said Akesson, who now has a head start.
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Eric Soderstrom is managing editor of Golfweek.com. To reach him e-mail [email protected]
Final results from the Polo Golf Junior Classic, played Nov. 18-22 at the the par-72,6,936-yard Legacy Course and par-72, 6,263-yard Independence Course atGinn Reunion (Fla.) Resort:
• • •
Bjorn Akesson def. Sean Dale 3 and 2 • • •
Vicky Hurst def. Kimberly Kim 3 and 2
• • •
Sean Dale def. William Kropp 1 up Bjorn Akesson def. Morgan Hoffmann 3 and 2 • • •
Vicky Hurst vs. Stephanie Kono 28 holes
Kimberly Kim def. Marika Lendl 3 and 1
• • •
Sean Dale def. Wesley Graham 3 and 2 William Kropp def. Cory Whitsett 2 and 1 Morgan Hoffmann def. Bud Cauley 3 and 1 Bjorn Akesson def. David Chung 1 up • • •
Vicky Hurst def. Stacey Kim 20 holes Stephanie Kono def. Jaclyn Sweeney 4 and 3 Marika Lendl def. Jennifer Johnson 1 up Kimberly Kim def. Marina Alex 2 and 1
ROUND OF 16
• • •
Sean Dale def. Gregor Main 2 and 1 Bud Cauley def. Mu Hu 1 up David Chung def. Alex Kang 4 and 3 William Kropp def. Anders Kristiansen 1 up Cory Whitsett def. Michael Jae Woo Im 6 and 5 Bjorn Akesson def. Pontus Widegren 3 and 2 Morgan Hoffmann def. Geoffrey Shaw 2 and 1 Wesley Graham def. Maximilian Kieffer 2 and 1 • • •
Vicky Hurst def. Allie White 5 and 4 Jennifer Johnson def. Danielle Frasier 1 up Kimberly Kim def. Caroline Hedwall 2 and 1 Jaclyn Sweeney def. Katy Nugent 19 holes Stephanie Kono def. Tessa Teachman 20 holes Marina Alex def. Lindy Duncan 2 and 1 Marika Lendl def. Jane Rah 2 and 1 Stacey Kim def. Sydney Burlison 2 up
ROUND OF 32
• • •
Gregor Main def. Christopher Walker 4 and 3 Bud Cauley def. James Kwon 6 and 5 Alex Kang def. Alex Shi Yup Kim 4 and 3 William Kropp def. Luke Guthrie 2 and 1 Cory Whitsett def. Bo Andrews 4 and 3 Bjorn Akesson def. Brooks Koepka 2 up Morgan Hoffmann def. Ramsey Sahyoun 3 and 2 Wesley Graham def. Minghao Wang 3 and 2 Maximilian Kieffer def. Austin Cody 3 and 2 Geoffrey Shaw def. Sean Einhaus 21 holes Pontus Widegren def. Robbie Ziegler 3 and 2 Michael Jae Woo Im def. M. Kawamura 2 and 1 Anders Kristensen def. Peter Uihlein 7 and 5 David Chung def. Sang Yi 1 up Mu Hu def. Andrew Yun 3 and 2 Sean Dale def. Tommy Chung Hao Mou 21 holes • • •
Vicky Hurst def. Joy Kim 3 and 2 Danielle Frasier def. Andrea Watts 1 up Kimberly Kim def. Pearl Jin 3 and 2 Katy Nugent def. Kyndall Ardoin 2 up Stephanie Kono def. Alexis Thompson 2 and 1 Lindy Duncan def. Lisa McCloskey 5 and 4 Jane Rah def. Sue Kim 7 and 5 Stacey Kim def. Evan Jensen 5 and 4 Sydney Burlison def. Tiffany Lua 2 and 1 Marika Lendl def. Milena Savich 2 and 1 Marina Alex def. Lauren Weaver 7 and 6 Tessa Teachman def. Julie Yang 3 and 2 Jaclyn Sweeney def. Kristina Wong 2 and 1 Caroline Hedwall def. Jenny Shin 5 and 3 Jennifer Johnson def. Mitsuku Katahira 19 holes Allie White def. Elisa Aoki 5 and 4
• • •
Click here for results from stroke-play qualifying.