Robert Karlsson close to PGA TOUR Champions breakthrough
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Written by Bob McClellan @ChampionsTour
Robert Karlsson had another close call for his first victory on PGA TOUR Champions last week at the Cologuard Classic. He dueled David Toms over a nail-biting final 18 holes, twice cutting Toms’ lead to one before a shocking finish on the 54th hole left him one back when all was said and done.
For Karlsson, 53, it was his fourth runner-up finish in 55 PGA TOUR Champions starts. He has posted 19 top-10s, which just goes to show how often he has been in contention.
But the Sweden native isn’t about to press in search of his first victory since the last of his 11 DP World Tour victories, in 2010. Not a chance. That’s just not who he is. He believes that would just get in his way.
“It would obviously mean a lot to win again, but it would be more about knowing I’m doing the right things,” Karlsson said Tuesday. “I don’t chase outside results directly. Knowing my personality, that would get me too focused on results and not process. In the back of my mind I want to do really well in the Schwab Cup, but focus on training, how do my stats look, where can I improve. I do much better that way than saying I’m going to win three tournaments.”
Robert Karlsson makes birdie on No. 17 at Cologuard
Golf fans might not know how good Karlsson was in the first decade of this century. The 6-foot-5 Swede posted eight of his DP World Tour victories between 2001 and 2010, including two each in ’06, ’08 and ’10. He was on two European Ryder Cup teams. He played 132 PGA TOUR events but never posted a win there, either. He had two runner-up finishes and a dozen top-10s.
Karlsson ranks second in driving distance on PGA TOUR Champions and fifth in greens in regulation. Besides his solo second last week, he was T3 at the Trophy Hassan II and T13 at the Chubb Classic to rank sixth in the Charles Schwab Cup Standings. No one will be surprised when he breaks through into the winner’s circle.
It almost happened in the desert. Toms and Karlsson, in the final group with Steve Stricker, came to the 18th hole at Omni Tucson National with Toms leading by two, but the Louisiana native’s drive trickled into the water on the right.
“When he hit his tee shot, I was sure he was in the fairway. I told him good shot,” Karlsson said. “When we got up there, there were two balls in the fairway. Who’s missing? We knew Stricker was center half to the right. I thought maybe mine was too far left. It’s impossible to see from the tee. I was really worried.”
Karlsson said he then noticed a TV cameraman hanging behind them on the right. He quickly figured he wasn’t there because of Stricker, because he had fallen well back of Toms’ pace. So, he must have been there because Toms’ ball had indeed found the water.
Toms dropped and hit his third shot through the green. He had a difficult chip, one that was not going to be an easy up and down. Meanwhile, Karlsson had found the green with his second shot and had about 20 feet for birdie.
“When we walked up to the green, my caddie said, ‘We could win this outright,’” Karlsson said.
Toms chipped to 6 feet, and Karlsson missed his putt. With the tournament on the line, Toms rolled in the downhill right-to-lefter for bogey and his third PGA TOUR Champions victory.
“I can’t be upset. I did my part,” Karlsson said. “My Friday wasn’t good enough. I didn’t play great. The weekend was great. There’s nothing to say. The way he putted … when he needed to hole one, he did. Hats off to him. Give him every credit. The only thing I can control is my own game. I’m very happy with the week.”
Karlsson gives a lot of credit for his sizzling start to this season to Mark Blackburn. The English native was Karlsson’s coach from 2007-15. He went back to Blackburn last September after a run of bad play that culminated at the DICK’S Sporting Goods Open, where Karlsson tied for 71st, the worst finish of his PGA TOUR Champions career.
Blackburn, a native of England, is one of the busiest coaches in the game, in large part due to his work with Max Homa. He also counts Xander Schauffele, Justin Rose, Charley Hoffman and Mike Weir among his players. The Blackburn Golf Academy is based at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama, the site of the Regions Tradition, the first major on the PGA TOUR Champions schedule.
“I sent him a text and wondered his situation, asked for a second opinion,” Karlsson said. “I sent him some stuff. He responded and almost straight away made sense. It has been just a bit tricky to get our schedules to work for both of us.”
Blackburn said it has been easy to pick up from where they left off eight years ago.
“He’s a great player, and I’d say we’ve remained pretty close friends,” Blackburn said Wednesday from The PLAYERS Championship. “Rob is an introvert. He has a close circle of people. But when you get to know him, he’s really a super lovely dude.
“Relationships when you coach players, sometimes they go stale. We had a really good run and it made sense for him to go with someone in Europe since he was staying on the European Tour. He was struggling at DICK’S and texted me, and it kind of rekindled some stuff. When you’ve had some success, you know what motivates him and what you can say.”
They fell back in step quickly.
“The good thing with him … he obviously … we have certain keys,” Karlsson said. “He knows what works. He was there when I played the best in my career. If I’m too much up on ball on the drive, he can see that. Maybe I shouldn’t chase distance so much off the tee. Small things can make a difference in the bigger picture. He knows how I work mentally, what traps I might fall into. He has a blueprint of who I am.”
Karlsson and Blackburn have been able to meet up three times since reuniting. Karlsson said he sent him some swings after his Friday round at Cologuard. Blackburn responded with a 2-minute video that led to his stellar weekend at Tucson National.
“My job as a coach is to make players realize how good they are,” Blackburn said. “Sometimes payers have amnesia. They can go from suicide watch one day to bulletproof the next. He’s an incredible player.
“It’s not like he’s been losing to chumps. David Toms is a great player. He also had a close call against Stricker. These are great veteran players who know how to win. He just hasn’t put himself in that situation enough. And winning is a skill in and of itself. The more he gets in that situation, the more comfortable he’ll be. He’s working very hard, and it’s really exciting to see.”
Sounds like a blueprint for a victory.