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'Brain freeze' is beginning to thaw out for Karlsson

When Robert Karlsson used the phrase "brain freeze" to describe a quite debilitating case of the yips, he probably found kindred spirits among the golf writers.

Robert Karlsson has shown signs that he is getting back to his best form having once considered his future in the game. Picture: EPA
Robert Karlsson has shown signs that he is getting back to his best form having once considered his future in the game. Picture: EPA

Battering away remorselessly here at the Hoylake Open, for instance, the mangled minds often become as barren as a polar ice cap.

Two years ago, on the eve of the Open just up the coast at Royal Lytham, Karlsson withdrew from the championship with one major problem; he simply could not swing the club.

The process which had come so naturally to him from childhood, right through to those glory years when he was competing in Ryder Cups and topping the European order of merit, suddenly became an anguish-laden palaver and one that he feared he would never fully recover from.

These days, he is working his way into full swing. A neatly assembled three-under 69 yesterday, which was bolstered by a profitable thrust on the inward half, hoisted him up among the early movers and shakers in the 143rd Open and provided another positive sign that this canny Swede is on his way back.

It has not been an easy journey. "I had to do some soul searching for myself to see if I wanted to keep doing this," said the 44-year-old, as he reflected on a mental mash up that took some three months to cure.

"I just couldn't swing the club back [at Royal Lytham]. It was so weird because I knew how to hit shots, it just wasn't happening. It was a total brain freeze. It was health problems, but more in the brain. I would start to stand too long over the ball, thinking too much. All of a sudden I've been standing there for a minute and it just went from bad to worse."

Karlsson reached the giddy heights of sixth in the world when he was at the peak of his powers back in 2008 but he has found himself languishing outside of the leading 200 in recent seasons. At the moment, he is 140th but, as each week passes, the Swede continues to haul himself up the ladder. A fourth-place finish in the French Open, which earned him a tee-time for this week's showpiece, and a top-10 in the Scottish Open have aided this determined clamber.

"Two weeks ago, I was 199th," he said. "So trying to get back up there is inspiring me. When I was struggling I was just beating myself up. Now I take a little step as a big positive. If I was 270th in the world then it was great to get to 260th. Of course, I'd like to be 15th, 10th or fifth but I'm not. I can't compare myself to the guys playing in the Ryder Cup or winning the order of merit because I'm not there at the moment. It's step by step."

A leaf through the archives has also helped him prepare for a brighter future. "I had a bit of a team talk with the guys I'm working with in June last year and we decided to have a look at some old pictures, [from] when I did well in 2008, and use some of those as a benchmark and we went from there," he said of that rummage through the albums that documented his most successful season on tour. "I've been working very hard since and things are kind of coming together nicely now."

Things certainly came together yesterday as Karlsson marched out in the very first group of the day and returned as the clubhouse leader, albeit fairly briefly.

Up at 4am for his 6.25 tee-off time, Karlsson finally got into his stride in the perfect conditions once he had turned for home. One-over through nine, he knocked in a six-footer for birdie on the 10th before chipping in on the 12th during a four-under inward stretch. "The stands were full on the first tee and I was very impressed by that; I certainly wouldn't have been there at that time," he said with a smile.

Karlsson has been a fixture at the Open for a quarter of a century. He shared fifth in the 1992 championship at Muirfield but then missed the cut in his next eight appearances. Indeed it was only really on his last visit to Hoylake, in 2006, that he finally felt like he had got to grips with the nuances of the links game.

"I used to put myself under way too much pressure but that year I just played comfortably," he said. "At the end of the day, it's 18 tees and 18 holes that have to be conquered four times. That was a huge step forward for me."

Having conquered those mental demons too, Karlsson continues to make significant strides.

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