Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sweden's Karlsson intent on chasing the best of both tours

Robert Karlsson is chasing the American dream. It's just that sometimes, it requires a long, slow walk. You know, like when playing in a tedious, teeth-gnashing, five-hour round at a U.S. Open -- full of detours, stops, starts, fits and spurts. Karlsson, ranked No. 17 in the world, is one of four major international stars who has joined the PGA Tour in 2011. He'll be jumping in, unreservedly, with both FootJoys, just as soon as he finishes standing in line.

Karlsson is a European Tour veteran who is technically a rookie all over again in the States. He moved his family of four to Charlotte, N.C., over the winter, bought a house and began the incredibly complicated, stupefying process of becoming a de facto Yank. If you thought timing and firing sequence were important in the golf swing, especially for a lanky guy who stands 6-feet-5, it's nothing compared with having your paperwork in order while setting up shop in the U.S.

"Everything from getting insurance, companies set up, Social Security numbers, it's a big job," Karlsson said. "Driver's licenses, you can't get a Social Security number if you don't have this, you can't get a driver's license unless you have a Social Security number. "It all has to be done in the right order. You can't buy a car if you don't have a driver's license. It's easy to spend a lot of time in these sorts of offices, and then you get up to the guy you are supposed to talk to and he says, 'Sorry, you've done it in the wrong order. Start again.'"

He is beginning anew in several ways. Transitioning to the new tour itself will surely be the easiest part of it all, because even though fellow international newbies Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel have made huge impacts globally in the past month, Karlsson is the most accomplished player in the group.

An 11-time winner internationally, Karlsson won the European Tour money title in 2008, holding off Padraig Harrington, who won two majors that season. The lanky Swede won twice last year in Europe, including the mega-money season finale, the signature Dubai World Championship, where he edged Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter and the rest of the tour's best.

Unlike others who hold status on the game's two biggest tours, Karlsson isn't sweating his dual citizenship of sorts. He's already exempt into the four majors and three World Golf Championship events, which count toward the membership tournament totals on both tours. "That gives you seven on each, so it's not that hard," he said. There's a welcome, refreshing take. Perhaps perspective helps.

Karlsson, at 41, is the oldest member of the PGA Tour's rookie class, which includes 15 players aged 25 or younger. At a time when tour multi-tasking has become a cross-continental, front-burner issue -- Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer both elected to not accept U.S. membership this year -- Karlsson is digging in for the long haul.

In the offseason, he pulled up stakes at the family abode in Monaco, packed up his wife and kids, ages 6 and 9, and moved to North Carolina. "Kaymer, Rory and me, we are in completely different stages of our careers," Karlsson said. "They are just starting out, they have played fantastic, and they have all the opportunities. To tie them, which you have to do if you are going to be a member here, sort of limits their freedom a bit.

"For me, having a house here and living here with a family, it is going to be the focus."

Tiny and tony Monaco, a tax haven for many athletes and celebs, had its advantages -- most of them financial and not many of them practical. "With the kids growing up, it's not really fair to live in a small apartment in the middle of town when you can't go out on their own," he said. "We looked for a place where we could get more quality of life and still have the benefit of the good golf courses. America, for me, seemed quite natural."

It should be a seamless fit. Swedes have succeeded wildly in the States on the LPGA and PGA tours, going back 25 years. In fact, it's not much of a stretch to envision Karlsson having the most success of the four new international members.

The two-time Ryder Cup player is one of the world's steadiest players. He made the cut in all four majors in 2010 -- only 10 others can make that claim. It represented a welcome return from a 12-month period from early '09 into last May when his career was derailed and somewhat in doubt because of an odd eye malady.

After finishing second at Memphis last June in a tuneup for the U.S. Open, he had the opportunity to make the leap. Given that he had tried to navigate PGA Tour Qualifying School twice in the past and missed, it was probably now or never.

"I am hoping to stick this out for a while," said Karlsson, who plans to enroll his kids in American schools. "We haven't moved over the family for a one-year, one-shot deal, that's a definite. Hopefully, if I play well, I won't need to worry about the end of the season here so I can play in Europe."

Maybe someday, before his productive years wind down, he won't have to worry about serving two masters. And we don't mean anybody living in Augusta. "I do not really agree with the system the way it is," Karlsson said. "We shouldn't have a number of tournaments you play in America and a number you play in Europe. I think down the road, and hopefully very soon for us players, we will have a world tour similar to the ATP tour in tennis. That's the way it has to go.

"At the moment, both tours are trying to have 'their players,' so to speak, but usually when tours work together it's better for everyone. But we are not there, yet. "At the end of the day, we must remember that golf is not so much about us players, it's about the spectators. We don't have much without the spectators."

Quick, somebody get this guy a seat on the PGA Tour Policy Board.

While it's become increasingly hard for stars to keep a foot in the door on both tours, Karlsson is probably tall enough to straddle the Atlantic. Once considered the tallest world-class player on the planet, he has since been supplanted by English skyscraper Chris Wood, who looks like an NFL quarterback and stands a shade taller.

"Chris is just a bit taller," Karlsson laughed. "He is thin as well, so he looks taller, and he has that big hair."

Locks, stock and barrel, Karlsson will begin his double-jeopardy 2011 pursuits next week on the European Tour in Bahrain, then will defend his title a week later in Qatar. On Feb. 17, he will make his debut as a card-carrying PGA Tour regular in Los Angeles at Riviera Country Club.

Hopefully, by then, he will largely have come to grips with navigating another American tradition: red tape. If half the members at Karlsson's new golf club in Charlotte, Longview, turn out to be lawyers, he would not be surprised. He could build a bridge to Sweden with the paperwork he has amassed since moving here. "They must make a lot of money," he laughed of the legal wrangling involved. "There could be twice as many and they would still have jobs." Like securing the piece of paperwork that reads 2011 PGA Tour member, it ought to be worth it in the end.

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