We used to call him Ken, as in Ken and Barbie! He could do no wrong
Michael Jordan’s mentality, a God-given game for golf, but Europe’s shock pick for Ryder Cup, Ludvig Aberg, goes by another name...
By RIATH AL-SAMARRAI
dmg media (UK)
Ryder Cup 2023
BACK in Texas, before many of us knew about European golf’s most exciting young talent, a couple of men had another name for Ludvig Aberg. ‘My assistant and me, we used to privately call him Ken, as in Barbie and Ken,’ says Greg Sands, and his role in the Aberg adventure is an important one. He is speaking to Mail Sport from his office at Texas Tech University, where he is the head coach of the golf programme that nurtured Aberg from 2019 to this summer, when their Swedish comet was finally let loose on the sky. ‘He never actually knew until recently that we had that nickname for him,’ adds Sands. ‘It was just a little thing between me and Mikkel Bjerch-Andresen on the staff. I actually spoke to Ludvig two weeks ago on the phone and told him, and he was like, “What?” But that was our name for him — Ken. ‘The reason being, he could do no wrong. Good-looking guy, practises all the time, never causes you one minute of trouble. Ken. ‘You know, as coaches we always want to have an effect on a player, but with Ludvig, I just have to downplay that, because, well, with him, God put together the perfect human being for golf. ‘He is 6ft 3in, has this great swing, hits it where he wants and that’s before you talk about his temperament.’ While the sporting world has looked on with amazement at Aberg’s progress, culminating in the Ryder Cup wild card he received last week from Luke Donald, just 77 days after his first strokes in professional golf, Sands is far less surprised than most. In fact, he wasn’t surprised at all, and nor is his hype out of proportion with those in the wider game as we count down to the match in Rome later this month. Rory McIlroy offered his take on Wednesday, saying he is now ‘front of the [Aberg] bandwagon’. Donald, the European captain and one not disposed towards flashy sentiment, described the 23-yearold as a ‘superstar’ and a ‘generational player’. To understand the astonishing scale of his rise, it is necessary to appreciate the anonymity Aberg held in the professional game until very recently. He was the world’s No 1 amateur at Texas Tech and one of the brightest stars the college game has ever known, but Donald had never heard of him until late last year. It is to fun to recall a conversation with Justin Rose in June, a few weeks after Aberg turned professional. Mail Sport had asked him if there were any curveball selection possibilities for Europe, and the former US Open champion had to reach for his phone. ‘I just want to check I got the name right,’ he said. ‘It’s a Swedish lad, just out of college, and apparently he’s amazing. I’ve not seen him play, but Fitzy [Matt Fitzpatrick] has and he was raving about him. Hits it a mile, doesn’t miss. Here we go, Ludvig Aberg.’ Now Rose, Fitzpatrick and Aberg are European team-mates on their way to Rome. So is Tyrrell Hatton. ‘I was actually there for his first pro tournament,’ Hatton tells Mail Sport. ‘Canadian Open. Fitz and I were in a group with him for the first two rounds. You hear the talk about how good he is and watching him up close, yeah, he was very impressive.’ Sands’ memories go back considerably further, to 2017 when Aberg was still based in Europe and coming through the Swedish junior ranks. By that stage, aged 17, he was already thriving, having been raised in Helsingborg and expertly steered by Hans Larsson, who remains his swing coach to this day. His progress led him to the European Boys’ Championship, which is where Sands caught a first glimpse. ‘I remember watching him and he wasn’t the best player on that national team because he might have been a year younger than some of them,’ he says. ‘But you could definitely see that he had a really high ceiling to get better. The coaches there were all very high on Ludvig and so we tried to recruit him. ‘The next summer he came to the US for a college event in Washington with the Swedish national team. It was September and he hadn’t joined up with us, so I went back over to watch him. ‘I’ll never forget it — first hole, he hit the top of a tree, made a mess of it, triple bogey. I just looked at my assistant and I go, “Well, let’s see how he handles that”, because many players will crumble. You know what, he didn’t win, but he got close and that’s as freshman playing against top college players. That’s when you know you might be watching someone special.’ Sands pulled off the signing and by the end of their four years together Aberg had twice won the Ben Hogan Award for the best player in college golf — along with Jon Rahm (2015 and 2016), he is only man to ever do so. In that ferociously competitive breeding ground for major winners, he would also claim the Big 12 Conference Championship in 2022 and 2023 on his way to becoming the best amateur in the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he had offers throughout to turn professional, including one from LIV last year for £2million. They were all rejected with bigger goals in mind. ‘The scary part is he just gets better and better,’ says Sands. ‘Everyone falls in love with Ludvig because of the physical talent, the swing, and him hitting 300-plus yards from the tee and the ball going to where he is looking. ‘But it is his mental strength that is even better. He was so focused and level-headed. He was never the guy that would throw clubs or get angry. ‘You know something interesting that set him apart? He has that ability to lift his game exactly when he needs it. He can go along, sit in contention, and then he would snap into a bit of that Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant mentality: “OK, we now know what we’ve got to do. Let’s go do it”. And he would.’ The mystery is how Aberg will handle the pressure of expectation. The natural reflex is to think some caution should be applied. But as Sands puts it: ‘I believe he is someone worth getting excited about.’ The rest of golf is quickly getting in on the secret.