In this new age of European golf dominance in both major championships and world rankings, Robert Karlsson is a more familiar face on the international stage than on American televisions.
The 6-foot-5 Swede, who embarked on his first full PGA Tour season at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles two weeks ago, is vaguely familiar to many, as much for his height and blond hair as for his golf, which is good enough to have him 17th in the latest Official World Golf Ranking, even though he lost in the second round of the WGC Accenture Match Play last week.
Karlsson has hoisted his 11 European Tour trophies in places such as Qatar, Dubai and Wales, building a career strong enough to place him on two European Ryder Cup teams and earn him one Order of Merit title. But in this age of globe-hopping golf, Karlsson found himself asking a simple question: Why not America?
Caught on this side of the Atlantic last spring when air travel to Europe was suspended due to volcanic ash in the sky, Karlsson and his family visited Charlotte during the week of the Wells Fargo Championship, which, ironically, didn’t include him. When the Karlsson children asked if they could live in a sprawling house they were looking at, the decision was made.
It would be easy enough for Karlsson to play the minimum 13 events on the European Tour, perfect for playing at least 15 on the PGA Tour, and it comes at a time when Karlsson is in the prime of his career at age 41.
Karlsson may not have Rickie Fowler’s youth or Anthony Kim’s swagger but he has a perspective as refreshing as Augusta in April and it has served to make him a better and happier player than at any time in his career.
“Instead of playing for myself and trying to collect money for myself, I changed the vision,” Karlsson said in his soft Swedish accent. “Instead of what can I get out of it, it’s what can I contribute?
“Instead of standing on the first tee and trying to win this event, the outlook was more what can I give? If I were a kid in the crowd, what would I like to see in me? How can I become a role model?”
That’s a variation on a theme. In a world where many celebrities and athletes avoid responsibility, Karlsson has opted to embrace it. That is, in part, because he has lived the other side and he didn’t like it.
Nine years ago, Karlsson contemplated quitting golf. He was a good player but he and his wife, Ebba, had a 1-year old, the travel was expensive and the pressure never seemed to abate.
A management company controlled Karlsson’s life. He didn’t like to travel. He didn’t handle his own finances. He couldn’t send an e-mail because he didn’t type.
That’s when Karlsson met Annchristine Lundstrom, who told him she could help change his life and, in the process, his happiness on the golf course. She started by putting Karlsson in a typing class with a 6-year old and 8-year old. Then she had him write to her about each round he played and his feelings.
“I started to grow as a person. I took small steps,” Karlsson said.
By 2006, Karlsson was on the European Ryder Cup team. Two years later, he captured the European Tour Order of Merit. An eye problem cost him a part of the 2009 season but he rebounded with two European Tour wins in 2010 and a playoff loss to Lee Westwood in the St. Jude Classic in Memphis.
Rather than make swing changes, Karlsson made personal changes.
“It’s a bit of an unconventional way, to work on the person instead of the golf,” he said.
It led Karlsson to create the Opening Key Foundation in his native Sweden, an organization designed to help people help themselves. When a young actress in Sweden needed to improve her singing, Karlsson’s foundation funded singing lessons that helped her land the lead role in a national production of “High School Musical.”
When he met a young Turkish golfer intent on playing internationally in hopes of building the game in Turkey, Karlsson’s foundation arranged for English lessons so the young golfer could more comfortably travel.
“The way we work, I cannot help you but I can possibly help you help yourself,” Karlsson said.
Before each event, Karlsson predetermines how much of his winnings will go directly to his foundation. He is also involved in the Sea of Stars Foundation in the United States.
When Karlsson looks into galleries following him at tournaments, he sees people more like him than they might imagine. He remembers being bullied at school. He remembers being afraid of public speaking.
When a father asks Karlsson to autograph a cap for a child, Karlsson asks the child to hand it to him. Small moments can become big teaching opportunities.
“My attitude is to contribute rather than take out,” Karlsson said.
That doesn’t mean Karlsson’s competitive fire has cooled. He has seen European Tour colleagues Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Martin Kaymer win the last three major championships and is more convinced than ever that he could be next. He finished in the top 10 of the first three majors in 2008, so he knows what it takes.
“The goal is to see if I can take the next step,” Karlsson said.
It’s one of the reasons he’s here.