insight - Robert Karlsson
Written by Alan Ewens
Occupation - Professional Golfer
Twelve months ago, Sweden’s Robert Karlsson shot a flawless final round seven-under par 65 to win the 2010 Commercialbank Qatar Masters, presented by Dolphin Energy – Qatar’s US$2.5 million European Tour event.
This month, the towering 6ft 5in 2008 European Number One is back to defend his crown just weeks after lifting the biggest title of his career, the Dubai World Championship. It’s all a far cry from his early days back home in Sweden when a young Robert literally grew up on a golf course in a country that had very little in the way of golfing pedigree.
“My dad was a green keeper in Sweden, so I was very young when I started out playing golf at the age of around six or seven. We actually lived on a golf course, which was unusual in Sweden at the time as very few golf courses had properties on them.
“Golf wasn’t a big sport in Sweden when I started out – our club had 400 members back then, while there are about 1,600 members at the club now. There are now around 600,000 golfers in Sweden out of a population of nine million, which is a big growth in the game over the past 30 years.”
Swedish golf is now recognised worldwide thanks to the efforts of stars such as Karlsson, Henrik Stenson, Jesper Parnevik, and, of course, Annika Sorenstam – so what does the World Number 17 believe is the reason for the Scandinavian surge?
“I think one of the reasons is that?it is quite cheap to play in Sweden. A few expensive clubs have sprung up, but overall golf is still very accessible. We Swedes are pretty sporty people overall and we like to play sports that can involve every member of the family – golf is a game like that.”
Unlike many of today’s top pros, Karlsson opted not to enter the US college system. Once he was good enough, a place on the Swedish national team beckoned, and with it the opportunity to turn pro or go to college in the USA. Karlsson opted to try his luck on the Swedish Tour.
Today, with career winnings of over €13 million, an Order of Merit title, 11 European Tour wins, and World and Ryder Cup success to his name, he is considered one of the world’s best. But it hasn’t always been a career at the top of the leader board.
After starting out on the Swedish Tour in 1989, Karlsson earned his playing card for the full European Tour, and embarked on what has been a rollercoaster of a journey that saw him reach the heights of European Number One in 2008 before a debilitating eye injury forced him out of the game for several months in 2009. “I can safely say that it was a pretty rough road up to the game I play now. Starting out as a golf professional is a big insecurity. You literally have to pay a lot of money to go to work, as there are no guarantees when you start out. It’s a very insecure business.
“It really helps if you have a sponsor or some small company that wants to back you, but I suppose that sort of insecurity keeps you disciplined and dedicated.
“Of course, the money available on tour is a great bonus, and we are fortunate enough to be able to play for it – but if we don’t play well, then we don’t get paid. I would play anyway even if there was no money involved.
“Winning in Doha last year made a big difference to me. The Qatar Masters is a very strong tournament with a world-class field of players, so for me to win there was massive. I have always liked the course ever since I first played it and I’ll definitely be back to defend in February. It is a course that suits long hitters – it has to be one of the longest we play – but it is a course that requires a lot of patience with testing par fives and some difficult rough.”
Despite his physical presence, Karlsson is a quiet and modest individual who hasn’t forgotten his roots.
During his early years learning the game in Sweden, there were plenty of people who invested time and effort helping him with his game. It’s a period that has stuck with him throughout his career, and the 41-year-old father of two believes in paying it forward.
Launched in 2006, his Open Key Foundation acts as a door opener for individuals, businesses, and organisations that otherwise might not have the means to develop.
“I started the foundation to allow me to use some of my prize money for the benefit of others if they so choose. It’s my way of sharing my good fortune with others. It can be anything from providing the funding for English lessons for a Turkish golfer making his way on the circuit to a year of singing lessons for a young Swedish girl who has gone on to sing the lead in the Swedish staging of ’High School Musical’.”
Karlsson allocates around 10-15% of his prize money to the foundation. And it’s not just the recipients of the funds who benefit.
“It also helps me if I am on the course and nothing much is going well for me – I can think about what I can do for others by winning and that spurs me on to do better.
“It’s great to know that I can make a difference. There are a lot of people who are talented but who need a helping hand financially. When I started playing golf as a child in Katrineholm, there were many adults around me who spent time and shared their experience so I could develop as a person and as a golfer. I know if they had not invested and believed in me, I would not be where I am today.”
Golf will return to the Olympics at the Summer Games in Rio in 2016. And while Karlsson is pleased to see it back, he won’t be holding his breath for a gold medal.
“I’m very happy golf has been included in the Olympics but I think it may have just come too late in my career. I wouldn’t expect too much but I’m happy that our sport has been included.”
Even though he has played in a winning European Ryder Cup team, reached the pinnacle of European golf, partnered Henrik Stenson to World Cup glory for Sweden, and been the first golfer to win Swedish Male Athlete of the Year, Robert Karlsson still has his idols.
“My ideal fourball would have to be with Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Ben Hogan. I’ve been lucky enough to play with Tiger on a couple of occasions, and it is really wonderful to watch him close-up. He just seems to have an extra gear. To play with Tiger, Jack, and Ben would be a dream – it would just be so interesting to compare our different games.
Power of Positive Thinking
Today’s professional golfer needs more than just golf clubs and a caddy to be successful. The men at the top of the sport employ swing doctors, fitness gurus, and sports psychologists. For Robert Karlsson, there is little doubt as to the value of the work done by his mind coach Annchristine Lundstrom.
“I wouldn’t call her a mental coach – she hates that expression!” he laughs. “But she has made a big difference to how I handle situations both on and off the golf course by working a lot on choice decisions. I certainly wouldn’t be as successful as I am now without her help.”