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In seven enormously successful seasons with Celtic, Henrik Larsson won almost every honour imaginable.
As well as four Scottish Premier League titles, two Scottish Cups and two Scottish League Cups, he helped the Parkhead side reach the final of the UEFA Cup in 2003, won the European Golden Boot in 2001 and scored 242 goals.
In March 2004, shortly before he joined FC Barcelona, former bunkered editor Martin Dempster sat down with the Swedish forward to discuss one of his other great loves – golf.
Here, ripped from the pages of issue 51 of bunkered, is their chat…
How did your love for golf come about?
Golf for me started when I was a youngster in Sweden. My brother, Kim, and I had a 9-iron that we used to hit balls with. My real passion for the game, though, didnʼt start until I moved to Scotland. To be honest, it was quite an expensive sport in Sweden when I was growing up and, when I came to Scotland, I discovered it was more a peopleʼs sport, so to speak. Now, however, it has also become a peopleʼs sport in Sweden, too. There are lots of young kids picking up golf clubs and thatʼs great.
Tell us what you enjoy most about playing golf?
Itʼs great fun and, as well as being competitive when you are out there, it is also very relaxing. It is a great way to socialise with your friends and also gives you the chance to meet lots of nice people for the first time.
Was there anyone in particular at Celtic who was responsible for you starting to play golf on a more regular basis?
When I first came to Celtic a lot of the players at the club at that time played golf. There was Tom Boyd, for instance, Jonathan Gould, Paul Lambert and Jackie McNamara. Almost all of the players used to play, in fact, and we arranged a number of golf days back then. Thatʼs how it got started.
The likes of Tom Boyd and Jonathan Gould have moved on, but do you still have plenty of playing partners in the current Celtic squad?
I think there are about ten players at the club at the moment who play golf. Chris Sutton is one of them and both Paul Lambert and Jackie McNamara try to get a game whenever they can.
Is there one person who is much better at golf than all the others?
There are a few ʻsharksʼ among them – and Paul Lambert is definitely one of them! Seriously, though, he is one of the better players; he hits a great ball.
People talk about you being a natural when it comes to goal scoring. Does the same thing apply as far as golf is concerned?
No! Iʼm not that good, though I have improved since I first started. I was really poor then and I donʼt mind admitting that it wasnʼt much fun watching all the other guys hitting great drives down the middle of the fairway in comparison to some of the shots I was hitting. That led to me starting to play a bit more and, thankfully, Iʼve got better and better.
How often do you get to play?
To be honest, it is very hard to find the time to play golf as much as Iʼd like to. Over the past couple of seasons Iʼve had an awful lot of football matches and that, of course, is the reason why I am here in Scotland in the first place. Iʼm here to play football, not golf. You have to try and find the right balance there and thatʼs the hard bit, especially when you are playing matches twice a week. Indeed, that almost makes it impossible to play golf.
Some football managers arenʼt keen for their players to play golf at all. You obviously havenʼt encountered that problem with Martin OʼNeill or the other managers you have played under at Celtic?
Obviously if you get your priorities wrong then it is going to be a problem for you. And, in my case, I never play a round of golf two days before I am playing a football match. And, when you have two matches a week, that means you canʼt play golf. For example, I played last October and didnʼt get to play again until January. And, then from January until April, I only played once. Itʼs all about priorities. I love the game of golf but itʼs not given me what football has and I donʼt think it ever will either.
Iʼd imagine, then, that you will probably play most of your golf during the summer break?
Thatʼs right. I probably play most of my golf really when I am back home in Sweden on holiday. I really like getting out on the golf course with my friends – it is great fun.
When you play in Scotland, do you play at one course in particular?
I play at a number of courses, to be honest. Iʼm not a member of a golf club in Scotland, so I have played courses all over the place. Most of the time I try to stay as close as possible to Glasgow. A round of golf can take quite a bit of time, so you donʼt want to be travelling too far for your game of golf.
I believe that one of the courses you have played is Loch Lomond. Tell us about that experience.
Yes, I have played Loch Lomond, as well as Troon, Carnoustie, Prestwick and all the courses up at Gleneagles. The setting at Loch Lomond is sensational and, from my experience, I donʼt think you can get a course that is so well prepared.
What about some of the other lesser-known courses that you have played?
The beauty about playing golf in Scotland is that there are lots of courses which may not be as well known to a lot of people but are still very nice. Whitecraigs, for instance, is a great golf course and the great thing about it for me is that it is very close to Glasgow. There are many other similar courses – you are spoilt for choice in Scotland.
You are clearly someone who takes your football seriously. Is it the same when you are out on the golf course?
Iʼve got a competitive streak in me and, when Iʼm out on the golf course, I definitely want to do well. At the same time, though, you have to know your limits. I can hit a decent ball but there are other times when I become frustrated with my game. When that happens, though, I have to realise and accept the fact Iʼm not a golf professional, Iʼm a professional footballer.
If you had an official club handicap, what do you think that would be?
When I play in events, I say that I play off 12. Thatʼs on a good day and I suppose itʼs okay. When I hit the ball I hit it well but there are other days when I feel that I donʼt hit a good shot at all. Iʼve been struggling with my putting but I donʼt have time to practice enough so I canʼt expect to go out on the course and play well all the time. I think golf is one of the games where you can make yourself good by putting in a lot of practice. If you have someone to coach you all the time, then you can definitely make yourself better. It is all down to repeating the motion. If you can get lessons, then you definitely have a chance of becoming a decent player.
Have you had any lessons?
Iʼve had a few but not nearly as much as Iʼd have liked. After playing the game for a while I decided to go for a golf lesson and the professional got me to change a number of things. As will happen with a lot of people, no doubt, I couldnʼt hit any good shots at first and found myself going back to what I did before going for the lesson. Itʼs all down to having time to work on things and I just donʼt have the time – itʼs as simple as that.
I believe youʼve enjoyed the thrill of having a hole-in-one. Was that the highlight of your golfing career so far?
Yes, I had a hole-in-one during Tom Boydʼs testimonial golf day at Cathkin Braes. I had one of those rounds where I didnʼt hit a single good shot until we came to the 16th, I think it was. There were people standing up at the green and I hit a lovely 3-iron. It bounced on the raised green and I watched it sneak into the hole. It was a tremendous – not many people experience that feeling and certainly not some of my friends.
How did that compare to scoring a goal in front of 60,000 people at Parkhead?
It is totally different. When you score a goal or get a good result at Parkhead it is tremendous but getting a hole-in-one playing golf was also very nice.
Is it right that you have talked about designing a golf course back in Sweden when you hang up your football boots?
Because I am interested in golf, I would love to be able to build or design a golf course one day. Only time will tell whether that happens or not because it is not only a question of getting the right land – you also need the finance for such a project. As yet, I havenʼt found anything but if I do get a chance and I think it is possible then Iʼd definitely be very interested. I have a few design ideas but I am going to keep them to myself at the moment because you never know what might happen in the future.
Are you friendly with any of the top Swedish players, the likes of Jesper Parnevik and Freddie Jacobson, for instance?
Iʼve met both Jesper and Per-Ulrik Johansson but, to be honest, our paths have rarely crossed over the years. In recent years Iʼve only been home to Sweden on the rare occasion and both Jesper and Per-Ulrik, of course, are now based in America. I watch a lot of golf on TV, though, and always follow the progress of the Swedish players – I like them to do well. We have some good players and itʼs pleasing to see them making their mark.
As you say, Swedish players have certainly made a big impact over the past decade or so. However, does it surprise you that a Swedish player has still to win a major?
I think it is only a matter of time before that happens. Take, Jesper Parnevik, for instance. He has won lot of tournaments in both Europe and America and he came close in the Open when finishing second at Troon in 1997. No matter what sport you play, even if you are good, you need a little bit of luck as well. And, as far as a Swedish golfer winning a ʻMajorʼ is concerned, I donʼt think they are far off. I certainly think they are capable and, in Freddie Jacobson, we certainly have another top player.
Talking about top players, can you tell us what you think about what Annika Sorenstam has achieved in the game?
Sheʼs fantastic – a great ambassador for Sweden and also Swedish golf. I like watching her on TV and she is certainly a good role model for any young Swedish girl who may be thinking about playing golf.
Annika, of course, was the centre of attention when she played against the men in last yearʼs Colonial Tournament in America. Do you think it took a lot of courage for her to do that?
It was really unbelievable what she did that week. All she probably wanted to do was play her rounds of golf and she could have done without all the attention. There was a lot of focus on her because she was a she and not a he and Iʼm sure that put extra pressure on her. Indeed, Iʼm sure she could have done even better in different circumstances. I felt sorry for he that she didnʼt make the cut because that would have proved a lot of people wrong.
Are you an equipment fanatic when it comes to golf clubs?
My brother, Kim, works for Callaway – heʼs one of their reps in Sweden – and he obviously helps me get all the good stuff. However, I wouldnʼt say Iʼm a fanatic. As long as I hit the ball well Iʼm happy. I played with the first set of clubs I bought for four or five years. In fact, Iʼve still got them. They werenʼt Callaway clubs but the ones I have now are.
Do you think the advancement in golf technology is helping the average club golfer?
Put it this way, the clubs I use now are much easier to hit than the blades I used when I first started playing. They have a much bigger sweet spot.
By all accounts, you are a bit superstitious when it comes to playing football – is it the same on the golf course?
Not all all. When Iʼm out on the golf course I like to beat the people Iʼm playing against but I want to relax and have some fun at the same time. If I have a good round playing with a certain golf glove I will probably wear it the next time I went out but nothing really other than that as far as superstitions are concerned.
You say you enjoy watching golf on TV. Have you managed to go to one of the big golf tournaments?
I was at the 2000 Open at St Andrews but I found it really hard to see anything. For me watching golf on TV is much better. You see the players hitting their shots, you see the ball drop, you just see everything. Donʼt get me wrong, it was great to be at St Andrews that year and it was great to see Tiger Woods winning.
Did you follow Tiger?
No, no. There were just too many people following him for me to have any chance of seeing what he was doing. I was out on the course for a while at first but I ended up watching it on the TV in the hospitality suite. I enjoyed the experience, though, and I will try and go to one of the ʻMajorsʼ in America once I have finished playing football.
If you could choose three people to play with who would they be?
Annika Sorenstam would definitely be there and the other two would have to be Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. It would be lovely to have a walk around the golf course with them. When you watch them on TV you can hardly believe some of the shots they hit, so to see it with your own eyes would be fantastic.
Tell us more about your brother – who comes out on top when you play golf together?
Kim is a good player and likes to get out on the golf course whenever he can. Heʼs older than me and there is always a competitive element between the two of us – we like to beat each other!
It goes without saying that most people in Scotland have enjoyed having Henrik Larsson come here to play his football. By the same token, coming here also appears to have been good for you. Is that right?
It has been a good place for me and my family, obviously. Iʼve been here now for almost seven years and so far it has been a good time for me. Itʼs going to be sad to leave but thatʼs life. You have to change things every now and then and, for me, it is time to either go somewhere else or go back home.
Can we expect to see Henrik Larsson back in Scotland playing golf in the future?
Iʼll definitely be back and, yes, I will be hoping to meet up with some of my old team-mates for a game of golf.
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This interview first appeared in issue 51 of bunkered (March 2004). For details of our latest subscription offer, click here. International subscriptions also available.
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