I'm a quitter," Robert Karlsson says. He is seated on the ground under a tree on a golf course in Sweden. It is early August, and Karlsson, 33, has been missing a lot of putts and putting up scores unworthy of a fellow who has twice come within an eyelash of making the European Ryder Cup team. Not only is he a quitter, he continues, but he also comes from a long line of quitters. Or perfectionists, if you prefer that term. "My dad was quite a pistol shooter, top 10 in Sweden," he says, "but he quit when he felt he couldn't be the best." Then there was Robert's paternal grandfather, who was an even bigger quitter—committed suicide, actually, during one of those long, dark Scandinavian winters.
Karlsson looks up into the tree, enjoying the way sunlight warms the pale-green undersides of the leaves. Quitting, in his view, is merely a disposition. The quitter, after trying a few times to roll a boulder up the mountain, sees the wisdom of leaving it in the valley.
The world is full of pain and disappointment. Some of it is avoidable.
There is nothing, however, that says a quitter has to quit. That was Karlsson last weekend, rolling his boulder through the Swiss Alps on his way to a four-stroke, wire-to-wire victory in the Omega European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre. Since 1995, when he won the first of his five European tour titles, Karlsson has been golf's designated seeker of truth, alternately embracing and rejecting his sporting destiny while dipping his toe in every current of New Age philosophy. "He's a very complex person," says his friend Goran Zachrisson, a golf analyst for Sweden's TV6 network. "He's very mature, and his knowledge goes beyond that of most people." Oh, and by the way, Zachrisson adds, "He's off his rocker, obviously."
Ask any player to name the deepest thinker on the European tour, and the reply is reflexive: Karlsson. On the one hand he is a conventionally handsome, 6'5" package of power and grace with the typical golfer's concerns about wrist angles and swing planes. On the other hand he is a sojourner whose quest for self-awareness has taken him well past the boundaries of orthodoxy.
Like Jesper Parnevik, his more flamboyant compatriot, Karlsson has eaten volcanic sand, but Parnevik would blanch if you served him the cold porridge that Karlsson used to concoct from the wheat shoots he cultivated in hotel bathrooms. Like a hundred other pros, he has employed a sports psychologist, but only Karlsson submits to deep-woods therapy, attends workshops where participants are not allowed to talk for a week and performs improvisational psychodramas with terminal cancer patients. On more than one occasion Karlsson has dropped out of sight and returned a few weeks later, gaunt and weak from fasting. "Many people think I'm crazy," he says, sitting under the tree. "I try not to care too much."
Aside from his reputation, Karlsson is a good-humored man, patient and attentive to others. "My first impression of Robert was that he knew something that I didn't know," says Ebba Palmcrantz, his companion of six years and the mother of his nine-month-old daughter, Thea. "He was a bit mysterious, and he had a lot of charisma."
They met, appropriately enough, at a group therapy session, which Palmcrantz attended in order to deal with her unsuccessful effort to start a health and fitness clinic in Stockholm. "I had a hunch I was going to meet someone important in my life," she recalls. "I didn't know anything about golf, and I didn't know who Robert was. But I knew it was him. I felt it strongly?'
Karlssons background was conventional enough. His father, Bj�rn (the frustrated marksman), is the greenkeeper at the Katrineholms Golfklubb, a pleasant track on the outskirts of Katrineholm, a railroad junction 75 miles southwest of Stockholm. The family's house, a typical Swedish cottage with flower boxes and a red-tile roof, is just off the 4th fairway and affords a grand view of a lake and the wooded shore beyond.
Young Robert took advantage of this idyllic setting. By age 13 he could outplay most of the club members. His uncle Bengt remembers his nephew's announcing that he had to learn English because he was going to be a professional golfer.