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Ludvig Åberg dealing with lofty expectations as Europe's widely admired Ryder Cup rookie


Tomas Setterhill realized pretty quickly there was something different about Ludvig Åberg.

As a coach and head pro at Eslöv Golf Club in southern Sweden, Setterhill had seen plenty of talented young golfers come and go but one thing struck him as he took Åberg under his wing from the age of 9.

“He didn’t get down on himself,” Setterhill recalled. “You see many juniors who, when they make a bogey or double bogey, they get angry. But Ludvig just kept playing.”

That composure remained with Åberg through high school in Sweden, through college in the United States as he rose to the No. 1 amateur ranking and it’s still there now, while he's winning titles in his first few months as a pro and as the world’s most talked-about young golfer.

Now comes the real test of that temperament: Amid the tension and raucous atmosphere of a Ryder Cup, a stage he has reached quicker than any player in history.

Look through the years and golf's biggest team event can bring the fire out of even the most mild-mannered of golfers. Two years ago, Patrick Cantlay — one of the sport’s more emotionless players — was cupping his hand to his ear and raising his arms to inspire more noise from the galleries at Whistling Straits as the United States powered to a record win over Europe.

Heck, David Duval, who once referred to the Ryder Cup as an exhibition, showed how much the event meant by repeatedly shaking his fists and whipping up U.S. fans at Brookline in 1999.

Will Åberg be similarly roused in Rome next week?

“I think you’ll see him interact with the fans and teammates,” said Peter Hanson, a two-time Ryder Cup player from Sweden who spent this week with Åberg in Spain in his long-time role as his mentor. "We've been talking about being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. It's something we work really hard on.

“I'm so impressed how he handles all these new tasks and environments all the time ... He seems to just thrive when you shine the light on him.”

Indeed, the 23-year-old Åberg doesn't seem fazed at all.

“I would say that I’m pretty good at staying in the moment, staying in the present and not get too high up, not get too far low and not get too far ahead of myself, too,” he said.

“One of the reasons why I was able to stand out in college in amateur golf is that I was able to have my emotions intact, and that’s what I’ll try to do.”

Given how the golf world is talking about Åberg — and don't forget, he hasn’t even played a major yet — there’s a widespread feeling he might be a generational player, and a Ryder Cupper who Europe will be leaning on for years.

Standing at 6-feet-3 (191cm), his main strength is the distance and accuracy of his drives. His longest drive is 376 yards and he led the PGA Tour for strokes gained off the tee in the seven events he played after turning pro, starting at the Canadian Open in early June.

“From where he hits the golf ball off the tee, I feel like if he’s half-decent with his irons and wedges and putter, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with in the world of golf,” said Justin Rose, who will be a Ryder Cup teammate next week.

As Rose suggests, the rest of Åberg's game remains a work in progress, but he has still built up an impressive body of work since joining Texas Tech University four years ago. He was the best college player in the United States for two straight years, won eight times — a record for the Red Raiders — and was a landslide leader of the PGA Tour University ranking that ensured him a place on the tour, when ranked as the No. 1 amateur.

As a professional, he has missed just one cut in 10 events and has four top 10s, including a win at the European Masters in Switzerland. Europe captain Luke Donald made Åberg one of his six captain’s picks a day after that victory in Crans-Montana, where he played alongside the young Swede and was in awe of his maturity and unflappability.

In his only tournament since, and with the spotlight firmly on him, Åberg led after 54 holes at last week's BMW PGA Championship, the biggest event on the European tour, after outscoring playing partners Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland — the world Nos. 2 and 4, respectively — in the first two rounds.

That a tied-for-10th finish felt like a massive disappointment says plenty about the expectations being foisted on a player already up to 80th in the world.

“I was on the bandwagon before,” McIlroy said last week, "and I’m certainly at the front of it now.”

Considering Åberg's strength off the tee, he would be a dream partner at the Marco Simone club for McIlroy or anyone in Europe's team.

“Always playing from 325 yards down the middle would be pretty nice,” Hanson said, laughing.

And it would be no surprise if Åberg played up to four out of a possible five matches next week, such is Donald's opinion of a rookie who no longer feels like one.

“I don’t think ‘fear’ is the right word,” Åberg said, looking ahead to Rome. “I think as a competitor, these are the events you want to be a part of. You want to have that shot. You want to have that putt to get a point or to win a match or whatever it is ... absolutely I’m up for the challenge."

Whether it's this Ryder Cup or the many more he's likely to play, Åberg already appears to be at the heart of a new generation of European players.

That's hardly a shock to Setterhill, who cherishes a photo he has of Åberg taken just after he struck a ball out on the course at Eslöv at the age of 10 or 11.

“I remember looking at it,” Setterhill said with a smile, “and thinking, that’s pretty good ... this kid has it.”


AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf