Karlsson inspired by fellow Swede Stenson

By Randall MellSeptember 26, 2013, 10:47 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Robert Karlsson can’t help but be inspired by his fellow Swede.

As Karlsson makes his way out of an abyss of his own making, there’s hope and motivation in seeing how Henrik Stenson is flourishing after he re-emerged twice from deep, dark places.

Karlsson shot a 6-under-par 64 Thursday to get himself into contention in the first round of the Web.com Tour Championship. He’s tied for second with Mark Anderson, a shot behind Ashley Hall. At 72nd on the Web.com Tour Finals money list, Karlsson needs a good week to win back exempt status on the PGA Tour. He probably needs a finish of T-15 or better to win back his Tour card.

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At 44, Karlsson is a long way from where he imagined he would be two years ago when he took up PGA Tour membership with 11 European Tour victories, five T-8s or better in major championships and two Ryder Cup appearances on his resume.

Back in 2011, Karlsson racked up $1.7 million in PGA Tour earnings and tied for fourth at the PGA Championship. He looked headed toward bigger things.

But then the abyss opened last year, slowly swallowing Karlsson’s game until it devoured his confidence.

He lost his Tour card last year and had to go back to Q-School to get it. He lost his card again this year.

“You miss being on the stage when you see what other Swedes are doing,” Karlsson said.

Stenson won two FedEx Cup playoff events this year and claimed the FedEx Cup in a torrid late-summer run. Stenson twice worked his way out of miserable slumps in his career.

There’s hope in that for Karlsson. There was hope, too, in talking to Sergio Garcia, who struggled a few years back to rid himself of a maddening habit of constantly re-gripping his golf club over shots. Karlsson said Garcia shared with him what he did to break his habit back when Karlsson withdrew from the British Open.

“Sergio had a good point,” Karlsson said. “He said when you get into those kind of problems, what you need is time. It’s not physically difficult to break the habit, but you need time. You need time and repetition. Do we have that time in July? Can we take three or four weeks off? No. That’s what Sergio said. He said, `I just didn’t have the time, and it got worse and worse until I had to take time.’”

Karlsson’s downward spiral began sometime before last year’s British Open.

Something started going haywire with his pre-shot routine, worsening to the point that he was freezing over the ball, struggling to take the club back to begin his swing. Before he knew it, he had the full-swing yips.

It got so bad in his practice rounds at the 2011 British Open that he withdrew on the eve of the championship.

Karlsson left the British Open unsure what the future held.

“I didn’t want to put a foot on the golf course,” Karlsson said of his struggles.

Karlsson shut down his game. He closed quarters and re-grouped. He asked himself hard questions

“When you are where I was, you have to sit down and see first of all, 'Do I want to do this?’” Karlsson said. “It starts with a decision, then the work.”

Karlsson decided he would do the work it took to get rid of the yips.

“I couldn’t get the ball away,” Karlsson said. “I had to start from the beginning. I went to the range, put the ball on the tee peg and said. 'OK, if I hit a thousand shanks in a row, it doesn’t matter. It’s going away. I’m going to look up once, and I’m going to look down, and I’m going to hit it. And that’s how I started.”

It was no instant fix.

Karlsson took a month away from Tour events to work on a new pre-shot routine to help him take the club back without hesitation. He came back at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island and actually got off to a strong start, getting himself in contention over the first 27 holes.

“I still had the problem getting the ball away,” Karlsson said. “When the pressure came on, I fell apart.”

Karlsson kept at it on the range, kept forcing himself to take the club away no matter how much he feared hitting a bad shot. He said it took six to eight months to finally rid himself completely of the yips.

“I don’t even think about it anymore,” he said.

Karlsson’s focus is back on ball-striking and scoring.

“If I look at the bigger picture, I’ve had a great career, but it’s not over yet,” Karlsson said. “I just want to build it up again. In the back of my mind, I definitely want to come back to play really good golf again.”

This week offers a chance to accelerate the comeback.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.