Living the Dream
Short in stature but long in tenacity, Joakim Bjorkman is tirelessly pursuing a career in professional golf
By Ryan French
In many ways, Joakim Bjorkman is similar to the thousands of golf professionals around the world who are chasing their dream. His swing is textbook, a perfect takeaway, with his hands in great position throughout. His ball flight is almost always a tight draw; his short game is stellar. He plays in events all over, hoping to break through. He is unique in at least one regard, however. Because he was born with achondroplasia, Bjorkman stands just 4 foot, 4 inches tall.
Bjorkman was born in Stockholm to a mother who was a medical secretary and a father who was an electrician. When he was about 6 years old, he remembers being smaller than his classmates. That is when his parents told him about his achondroplasia, a condition in which the growth of the long bones in places such as the arms and legs is affected. People with this condition often have a normal-sized torso with short limbs.
As a youngster, Bjorkman played table tennis, soccer and indoor floor hockey, a popular sport in Sweden. Like many, he fell in love with golf because of Tiger Woods. When he was 10 he watched the 2000 Open Championship and recalls “how cool” Tiger was. Woods won that year at St. Andrews by eight shots. Bjorkman didn’t know it at the time, but that tournament would change his life. Still, there would be difficult days before he realized the impact that championship would have on him.
Soon after, Bjorkman’s uncle cut down a 7-iron for him, and that summer he entered a golf program. His first official handicap was a 54. Just months later he was down to a 15. The golf course became an escape from the stares, an escape from the questions of other kids and the anxiety of why people looked at him differently. Silently, though, Bjorkman was struggling.
“The questions from other kids never bothered me as much as the staring from adults,” he says. Jokes and comments were made at his expense. Bjorkman internalized it all, hiding his depression and the hurt from almost everyone. The bullying took its toll. For 10 years he listened and silently hurt. Then when he was 16, he walked into the kitchen and collapsed. He awoke in a hospital, having suffered a panic attack. The anxiety had finally caught up with him.
Joakim needed a fresh start and a new outlook. He remembers studying the apple tree in his parents’ front yard and relating it to his own recovery. “You couldn’t notice the change day to day,” he says, “but the apple tree eventually grew leaves, flowers and finally fruit. But it was a long process. I felt the same.” For two years, Joakim rarely left his house. When he did, it was often to do one thing.
“The golf course was home, a place where I could drop everything, and not feel any stress,” he says. His parents would drop him off at 7 in the morning and he would play and practice until dark. His game improved dramatically. He turned his focus to finding ways to make golf a part of his future. Golf gave him purpose; it saved his life. “I’m not sure where I would be if it wasn’t for golf,” he says. “I don’t want to think about it.” The golf course was the first place he was looked at as just a golfer. He hoped that one day he could make a living from it.
Opportunities for disabled golfers were few and far between in the early 2000s, but they have grown over the years. The DP World Tour started Golf for the Disable (G4D) with an event at the Belfry in 2019. This year it has expanded to seven events, including a season-ending championship in Dubai. Tournaments are 36 holes and held at the same course during the same week of the corresponding DP World Tour event. This year the G4D will play courses such as Valderrama and Wentworth. The season begins in May at the Belfry. The USGA also announced the U.S. Adaptive Open, which will be played at Pinehurst No. 6. It’s the tournament Bjorkman has marked as his most important of the year. The USGA and the R&A have implemented a world ranking system, which is based on a 104-week rolling cycle. Bjorkman has been ranked as high as third and is currently 24th. The No. 1 player, Brendan Lawlor, played in a European Tour event in 2020, shooting 84-82.
G4D events don’t offer prize money, although in 2022 the DP World Tour has promised a “financial support package.” So the pros must find ways to make ends meet, as yearly expenses can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Bjorkman has a few sponsors but it is not enough, so he works as a hospital administrator. It is how he keeps his dream alive. His normal schedule is to work from 7 a.m. until about 2:30 p.m. and then drive to the course to practice. He works on his game until dark and then starts all over again the next day. The Grind.
I found out about Bjorkman from his agent, who called me about a trip Bjorkman was planning to the United States. He was looking for developmental tours to play on and needed guidance on which ones he should target and what areas he should visit. I gave him some options and sent over a bunch of information. The developmental tour scene in the United States became quite fractured once the PGA Tour joined the fray with the Latinoamerica and Canadian Tours. It can be difficult to navigate.
Bjorkman chose to travel to Florida in early April to play two tournaments. Developmental tour events in the U.S. are often played on courses that are in poor condition and/or are relatively easy. The two Bjorkman selected were anything but that. The first was a two-day Florida Elite Tour event that was played at The Golden Bear Club at Keene’s Pointe in Windermere. It’s a 7,173-yard, par-72 layout with a 75.3 rating and a 140 slope. He then played in a one-day West Florida Tour event at the Ritz-Carlton course in Sarasota, which measured 7,000 yards with a course rating of 74 and a slope of 132. As he has with many things in his life, he faced the challenges head-on.
Bjorkman, 31, had never taken a long trip by himself. Now he was heading across the Atlantic on a 10-day adventure. First, there was an issue with the rental car. The vehicle he uses in Sweden is modified for him, but for the first time, now he needed pedal extenders. After his nine-hour flight from Stockholm, he picked up his rental car in Orlando. He spent the next 21/2 hours in the parking deck adjusting the extenders.
Naturally, Bjorkman was conscious of his budget. He had booked a hotel in the Orlando area that cost $680 for the 10-night stay. As soon as I heard the price, I cringed. He described it as “more camping than a hotel.”
I asked Bjorkman if he enjoyed Chipotle, a staple restaurant in the pro golf world. “I did it even cheaper,” he replied, adding that he ate a lot of meals at Publix, using the microwave at the grocery store to heat up TV dinners.
As he readied for the opening round on the Florida Elite tour, Bjorkman was anxious. “I wanted to prove I could play,” he says. “I wanted it too much.” He has a swing speed of about 92 mph with his driver and a ball speed of about 136 mph. His carry yardage with his driver is around 225 yards, so a 7,100-yard course plays especially long. He says he couldn’t reach about four par-4s with his approach shot. Despite that, he opened with a front-nine 40. Things fell apart on the back. “I’m not sure what happened,” he says. “I just felt so much pressure.” He struggled home in 50.
The next day he felt a bit more relaxed and played a really good round, making 12 pars. Despite a double-bogey at the last, he shot 79.
After practicing for a few days (and devouring more Publix TV dinners), he headed to Sarasota. He was paired with countryman Daniel Chopra, who has 14 worldwide wins, including two PGA Tour victories. On the 1st hole, Bjorkman hit a drive down the middle, played a 5-iron to 10 feet and made the birdie putt. He shot 85, but he left satisfied “that was a really difficult course.”
“The guys were astonished at how good he hit it,” says Christian Bartolacci, owner of the West Florida Tour. “Most players didn’t expect the ball to go that far. His determination really came across while talking with him. It was great to have him play.”
The trip home included a canceled flight, lost luggage and a rebooking on a flight with a long layover, typical of the problems so many pros encounter. But Bjorkman remained upbeat. “It was a really great trip,” he says. “I wish I had played a bit better, but I learned so much.”
His biggest takeaway? That he could make the trip without any help. Bjorkman often gets late offers to play in pro-ams and tournaments, but he has turned down countless opportunities as he didn’t have anyone to travel with him. It is hard to ask friends or family members to take time off of work to accompany him. The main thing he gained on the trip was independence. “It is really so freeing for me, knowing that I can travel alone now,” he told me by phone, the excitement and relief evident in his tone. “I have so many doors open for me now.”
He is back to working during the day, pounding balls at night. In May, he is scheduled to play an event in the Nordic League, a developmental tour in Sweden. He’s looking forward to the DP World Tour season and to another trip to the States for his biggest event of the year, on July 18-20 at Pinehurst.
I write stories about players who overcome obstacles to chase their dreams. Joakim Bjorkman has dedicated his life to making it in professional golf. He wants to be known simply as another player trying to climb to the highest level. That’s exactly what he is.