I'm a quitter," Robert Karlsson says. He is seated on the ground
under a tree on a golf course in Sweden. It is early August, and
Karlsson, 33, has been missing a lot of putts and putting up
scores unworthy of a fellow who has twice come within an eyelash
of making the European Ryder Cup team.
Not only is he a quitter, he continues, but he also comes from a
long line of quitters. Or perfectionists, if you prefer that
term. "My dad was quite a pistol shooter, top 10 in Sweden," he
says, "but he quit when he felt he couldn't be the best." Then
there was Robert's paternal grandfather, who was an even bigger
quitter--committed suicide, actually, during one of those long,
dark Scandinavian winters.
Karlsson looks up into the tree, enjoying the way sunlight warms
the pale-green undersides of the leaves. Quitting, in his view,
is merely a disposition. The quitter, after trying a few times to
roll a boulder up the mountain, sees the wisdom of leaving it in
The world is full of pain and disappointment. Some of it is
September 15, 2002
There is nothing, however, that says a quitter has to quit. That
was Karlsson last weekend, rolling his boulder through the Swiss
Alps on his way to a four-stroke, wire-to-wire victory in the
Omega European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre. Since 1995, when he
won the first of his five European tour titles, Karlsson has
been golf's designated seeker of truth, alternately embracing
and rejecting his sporting destiny while dipping his toe in
every current of New Age philosophy. "He's a very complex
person," says his friend Goran Zachrisson, a golf analyst for
Sweden's TV6 network. "He's very mature, and his knowledge goes
beyond that of most people." Oh, and by the way, Zachrisson
adds, "He's off his rocker, obviously."
Ask any player to name the deepest thinker on the European tour,
and the reply is reflexive: Karlsson. On the one hand he is a
conventionally handsome, 6'5" package of power and grace with
the typical golfer's concerns about wrist angles and swing
planes. On the other hand he is a sojourner whose quest for
self-awareness has taken him well past the boundaries of
Like Jesper Parnevik, his more flamboyant compatriot, Karlsson
has eaten volcanic sand, but Parnevik would blanch if you served
him the cold porridge that Karlsson used to concoct from the
wheat shoots he cultivated in hotel bathrooms. Like a hundred
other pros, he has employed a sports psychologist, but only
Karlsson submits to deep-woods therapy, attends workshops where
participants are not allowed to talk for a week and performs
improvisational psychodramas with terminal cancer patients. On
more than one occasion Karlsson has dropped out of sight and
returned a few weeks later, gaunt and weak from fasting. "Many
people think I'm crazy," he says, sitting under the tree. "I try
not to care too much."
Aside from his reputation, Karlsson is a good-humored man,
patient and attentive to others. "My first impression of Robert
was that he knew something that I didn't know," says Ebba
Palmcrantz, his companion of six years and the mother of his
nine-month-old daughter, Thea. "He was a bit mysterious, and he
had a lot of charisma."
They met, appropriately enough, at a group therapy session, which
Palmcrantz attended in order to deal with her unsuccessful effort
to start a health and fitness clinic in Stockholm. "I had a hunch
I was going to meet someone important in my life," she recalls.
"I didn't know anything about golf, and I didn't know who Robert
was. But I knew it was him. I felt it strongly."
Karlsson's background was conventional enough. His father, Bjorn
(the frustrated marksman), is the greenkeeper at the Katrineholms
Golfklubb, a pleasant track on the outskirts of Katrineholm, a
railroad junction 75 miles southwest of Stockholm. The family's
house, a typical Swedish cottage with flower boxes and a red-tile
roof, is just off the 4th fairway and affords a grand view of a
lake and the wooded shore beyond.
Young Robert took advantage of this idyllic setting. By age 13 he
could outplay most of the club members. His uncle Bengt remembers
his nephew's announcing that he had to learn English because he
was going to be a professional golfer.
"Golf was the only thing I did during the summer," Robert says.
"I had two sets of friends--school friends and golf friends."
If there was a seed of self-destruction in his upbringing,
Karlsson didn't recognize it until he was 27 and a regular on
the European tour. The trouble started in 1996, when he noticed
that fairways were narrowing and trees spreading their branches
the instant he pushed his tee into the ground. "I could hit it
fine on the driving range," he says, "but I was panicking on the
tee. Badly. I saw out-of-bounds that no one else ever saw."
Determined to fix the problem, he spent hours on the practice
range. "Working hard didn't work," he says. "The more I
practiced, the better I got, but the better I got, the worse I
performed. Mentally, I couldn't handle what was happening. I was
ready to give up."
Frustrated and angry, Karlsson took the advice of his sports
psychologist and signed up for a week in the woods. The workshop,
at a rural retreat near Norrkoping, was, in Karlsson's words,
"for people fed up with life." He spent lots of quiet time in the
trees ("Tranquility gives you perspective," he says) and reached
a profound conclusion: He could live without golf. "Accepting
that I could do something else with my life was very important,"
he says. "It took a lot of the pressure off me."
To that point Karlsson's emotional journey had followed a
predictable route. "Pretty much all Swedish players work on the
same things," says recent first-time Euro tour winner Adam
Mednick, a Karlsson admirer. "We see if we have mental blocks.
If we have any ghosts in the closet, we drag them out and
After his retreat Karlsson's next step was a weeklong group
therapy session at the Mullingstorp Education and Health
Institute with Dr. Bengt Stern, the renowned therapist and author
of Feeling Bad Is a Good Start. Stern's program, which is
designed for patients with terminal illnesses, places great
emphasis on childhood traumas and often leaves his patients
trembling and bawling.
"It's very deep therapy," says Zachrisson. "You can't go through
it without another relative along to take care of you."
Karlsson cried for most of the week. In subsequent sessions with
Stern he brought along his father and his mother, Valborg (who
died last year of cancer).
"When you're born, you're this pearl," Palmcrantz says. She is
watching Karlsson play in the first round of the Volvo
Scandinavian Masters in Kungsangen, Sweden. "When you get older
and become an adult, you put on all these layers to protect the
pearl. You're an onion."
Therapy, she goes on, forces the troubled adult to peel off the
layers, all the accrued denials and rationalizations of modern
life. "And when you peel off enough, you're this pearl again,"
Karlsson's friends say that Sternian therapy has produced a
marked change in him. "Robert had so much talent before, but he
was a little shy and didn't take the space he really deserved,"
says Mednick. "After he saw Dr. Stern, he was more open, more
Karlsson's game improved too. In 1997 he won the BMW
International Open and by year's end had jumped from 102nd to
10th on the European money list. Two years later he made a
strong run for an automatic Ryder Cup berth, only to miss by a
whisker (he finished 11th in the standings) and be passed over
by team captain Mark James. "It was my biggest disappointment in
golf," says Karlsson, who saw a captain's pick go to Scotland's
Andrew Coltart, who had finished behind him in qualifying
points. "I guess it wasn't my time." Last year, in an eerie echo
of '99, Karlsson won once and finished second twice on the Euro
tour but failed to impress captain Sam Torrance enough to join
the team that will face the U.S. in two weeks in England.
Asked if Karlsson was snubbed because other players find his ways
bizarre, his swing coach, Bjorn Rigby, shrugs. "They don't really
understand what he's doing," he says. "It makes some of them
Karlsson and Palmcrantz, meanwhile, seem quite content. They live
in Monte Carlo to avoid Sweden's punishing taxes. They also have
a town house near Stockholm in a development called TM Village,
TM standing for transcendental meditation. Karlsson's game is as
unpredictable as ever--before his triumph in Crans-sur-Sierre he
hadn't had a top 10 finish all year--but he no longer threatens to
quit golf when his putts don't fall. "When I play bad now," he
says, "it's not such a big drama as it was before."
That's not to say that Karlsson's life has turned prosaic. Last
Friday, before he teed off in the second round of the European
Masters, he learned that Stern, his beloved therapist, had died
in Skarholmen, Sweden. In a zone similar to that in which Ben
Crenshaw won the 1995 Masters after the death of his mentor,
Harvey Penick, Karlsson responded with rounds of 65-66-68-71 and
ran away with the tournament.
Palmcrantz, who was back in Sweden for a feng shui class, saw a
clear connection between the two events. "When a master dies,"
she said, "his disciples take on his energy."
The meaning of life, if you believe the old joke, is known only
to a bearded man in a dirty robe sitting cross-legged at the
mouth of a cave near a mountain peak, not to a pro golfer sitting
under a tree.
But before we leave, it can't hurt to ask Karlsson if his quest
for understanding has led him to some great truth, an insight
that won't quit.
Pondering the question, he smiles. "It sounds a bit cryptic," he
says, "but all I found out is, there's nothing to look for."
"They don't understand what he's doing," Karlsson's coach says.
"It makes some of them uncomfortable."