LA QUINTA, Calif. – It’s the most hated word in golf.
More so than shank, hook, top - even more than Q-School - where a field of 172 set out on Wednesday in the chilly California desert in the annual quest for job security if not professional validation.
“Ugly word,” Robert Karlsson sighed when asked about the affliction.
In golf circles it is “the word that can’t be spoken” – yips. Even as the cursed word escaped the Swede’s lips one could almost detect a palpable shutter.
Karlsson, you see, has become something of a reluctant expert on the condition that can’t be defined but has torpedoed more pro dreams then Q-School ever could, not that he’s entirely comfortable with the vague notion or its impact on his game.
“What are the yips?” he glares at first when asked if it was what sent him staggering home without putting a peg in the ground at this year’s British Open. But the emotion quickly passes, reason takes hold and he owns it like an alcoholic easing his way through Step 1.
“Yes,” he smiles, “I would say it was (the yips). It was important for me not to characterize it as the yips because there is so much fear in that word.”
And Karlsson knows about fear. It first hit him at the U.S. Open in June. Through 69 holes at The Olympic Club, Karlsson found himself 7 over and vying for a top-10 finish as he approached his ball in the middle of the 16th fairway. From that ideal spot he pushed his second shot some 40 yards right of the green.
“I had a tough chip shot from hardpan and hit perfectly,” Karlsson recalled. “That’s when I knew something was wrong. I stood over the ball for two minutes in the middle of the fairway.”
While with chip shots and putting, Karlsson was as prolific as he’d ever been, but as he closed his week at the U.S. Open he found it increasingly difficult to find the center of the club face.
He struggled through the Travelers Championship the next week but when he arrived at Royal Lytham for this year’s Open Championship he found himself with no more fight. The official reason for his withdrawal, he later tweeted, was because of “some bad habits,” but he would slowly come to accept that it was the yips.
He didn’t play again until the PGA Championship and failed to make the cut in his next three starts. Unlike many who go through a similar slump, Karlsson immediately, if somewhat reluctantly, identified the problem and set about a game plan to fix it.
He began “working” on the problem the Monday after Royal Lytham with the help of his swing coach and two sports psychologist. For Karlsson it was his routine that was broken and to fix that he began hitting chip shots from every tee during practice rounds, going through the same routine he would to hit his driver.
There were signs of life late in the year. He made the cut at the Italian Open and finished tied for 20th at the BMW Masters on the European Tour.
“The first tournament I played with a sort of fluid routine was the second round (at the Wyndham Championship),” he said. “When I started to put together some scores and made the cut in Italy that’s when I was like, ‘Yes, I can still do this.’”
But it was his position on the Tour money list (160th) and a trip to the second stage of Q-School that finally lifted him from the yipping abyss. Where some would be discouraged by such a loss of statue, the 10-time winner on the European Tour and Ryder Cup stable used the Fall Classic as a starting point.
“I’ve had the whole spectrum this year all the way from Augusta to stage two (of Q-School). It’s quite a humbling experience to play stage two,” he said. “It makes you appreciate the success you had before. It feels like a bonus to be back playing. It feels good.”
The real bonus came on Wednesday when he opened with a 6-under 66 at the final stage of Q-School and was two strokes off the lead at the six-day grind. In a round his caddie called perfectly “boring,” Karlsson failed to make a bogey on the Nicklaus Tournament course in his quest to regain Tour status.
The Tour has been reluctant in recent years to award a Comeback Player of the Year trophy, or maybe two-time winner Steve Stricker never gave the chalice back. For the second consecutive year there was not a ballot sent out for the award but if Karlsson continues to play “boring” golf for five more rounds at PGA West it’s hard to imagine a quicker or more compelling comeback from the darkest of places.
A comeback from the dirtiest place in golf – the yips.
“That’s why it’s so rewarding now that I’ve been able to break it,” he said. “It can be broken.”