Robert Karlsson stands over his golf ball, a picture of invincibility. The broad-shouldered Swede with the unflappable demeanor and effortless machinations waits to unearth a mighty blow into the cavernous gray sky.
And waits. And waits.
A picture might say a thousand words, but this one speaks in riddles. The seconds become a minute, maybe longer. Karlsson remains frozen in pose, that demeanor looking less unflappable, his machinations less effortless.
Last Wednesday, the R&A announced that Karlsson had withdrawn from the Open Championship, less than 24 hours before his opening-round tee time. No explanation was offered.
Those who witnessed his practice attempts understood it was the only reasonable decision.
One day earlier, Karlsson tried to play a practice round at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. It lasted exactly two holes. He returned the next day, muddling through only seven before retreating from the course.
“I came into some really bad habits in my routine,” Karlsson later said via email. “I have worked on the issue in my time off before the Open and made some progress before, but found out on Wednesday that it was not enough.”
Bad habits. Issues. They are each buzzwords for the real problem he's enduring.
Robert Karlsson has the yips.
It’s a term in golf as taboo as the shanks, but the game’s most unspoken word is often its most unavoidable.
More frequently identified with the putting stroke, the yips are defined as “nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively.” There is no rule which states this neurological dysfunction is limited to a single club, that a golfer can only be overcome at certain times and places.
In layman’s terms, Karlsson is having trouble pulling the trigger. He gets into his pre-shot routine, stands over the ball and … waits. If there’s a reason for this, he doesn’t know what it is.
“This is a thing that I have struggled with on and off over some time,” he explained.
The height of this “thing” during competition occurred at last month’s U.S. Open. Though Karlsson has struggled with it in the past, his inability to swing the club peaked – or bottomed out, as the case may be – while playing at The Olympic Club.
“He managed to get through the U.S. Open, but he was struggling toward the end,” said caddie Gareth Lord. “He came in 29th, which was fantastic for what he had.”
Therein lies the most quixotic revelation to Karlsson’s recent issue: It hasn’t affected his golf game.
Following that 29th place finish at the U.S. Open was another 29th at the Travelers Championship one week later. Combined on the PGA and European tours this season, he’s made 11 cuts in 16 starts with five top-25s.
The results are nothing out of the ordinary for a player with a dozen career victories globally, one who was once ranked as high as sixth in the world.
“Physically, he’s fine,” Lord contended. “I mean, his game looks great. It really does.”
“I have been hitting the ball pretty good lately, so the game is fine,” added Karlsson. “I just need to sort out the issues I am dealing with.”
That won’t be an easy proposition.
Just as any neurological dysfunction that affects a player’s game can creep in without warning, it can similarly fade away. Karlsson is doing his best to accelerate that process, though, working with a sports psychologist while employing a healthy dose of optimism.
“I feel confident that I will sort it out one way or another,” he said. “I feel that in a situation like this it is important for me to stay humble. I am looking forward to taking on the challenge to solve it.”
For so many years, Karlsson has been a picture of invincibility, one of the strongest, sturdiest players amongst the game’s elite. His physical gifts are still very apparent, but that picture has been altered, leaving him vulnerable and his future uncertain.
He hopes to return for the upcoming PGA Championship, but in his current situation, Karlsson knows he can’t be certain of anything. As he explained, “My plan is to come back and play when I feel ready for it.”
When it comes to the yips, there’s no telling when that may be.