Golf World travels to the Arctic Circle to visit Europe's Robert Karlsson, a man who has spent a career trying to understand himself
The tall tale, especially one rooted in an unscrupulous combination of innuendo and outright lies, tends to grow exponentially less and less believable in the telling and re-telling.
And this one is no exception.
According to what has fast become a 21st-century Nordic legend, Robert Karlsson, the lanky, blond Swede whose record in the four major championships this year was second only to Padraig Harrington's, is a prominent member of a cult fronted by a mysterious corporation called SVC. OK, if not a cult, then at least a sect, or maybe a caste led by a mysteriously publicity-shy cigar-smoking individual named Annchristine Lindstrom (who declined to have her photograph taken for this story).
"Unfortunately, the media has made me sound very strange," says Lindstrom, by way of explanation. "I could make a long list of the things I have been called. None of them are true."
Indeed, the less reliable section of the Swedish media supposedly has been full of titillating details of downright depravity and wayward wantonness. Back in August 2004 a television program—the Scandinavian equivalent of "Hard Copy"—showed pictures of a leather-and-fur clad Karlsson, a 6-foot-5-inch Thor-like giant, taking part in what the show claimed was some sort of weird pagan ritual in the remote Lapland township of Vuollerim on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Never mind that the seven-time European Tour winner and his family were actually taking part in an innocent celebration of the village's 6,000-year-old history dating back to the Stone Age.
"It was a whole package of lies," he says. "In the program were a lot of things saying that SVC was a cult trying to enlist members. I have never been involved in that because it has never existed; there are no members."
Then there are the less sinister idiosyncrasies attributed to this 39-year-old father of two who will make his second successive Ryder Cup appearance at Valhalla next week. Over the years, so urban legend has it, Karlsson adopted a variety of increasingly eccentric self-improvement ploys designed to both enhance his on-course performance and cleanse an apparently terminally tortured soul.
There was the long night of short putting in the hotel room accompanied by the friend shouting loud abuse ("All he really did was ooh and ah," says Karlsson) whenever one was missed. There was the month-long diet of bread and milk. There was the no-food-after-4 p.m. routine. There was the two weeks of fasting. There was the re-enactment of conception, gestation and birth. And, perhaps most famously, there was the Jesper Parnevik-like experimentation with the culinary delights of volcanic sand ("It tasted really bad," says Karlsson).
All in all then, Karlsson, an 18-year European Tour veteran, is not your average tour pro.
"Robert has always been a bit of a loner and very focused on what he does," says Joakim Haeggman, the first Swede to play in the Ryder Cup and a direct contemporary of Karlsson (Haeggman is six days older). "He's always been a bit odd to the rest of us, even if he has always been a member of the Swedish gang. He just goes his own way within the group."
Fair enough, but where do the myths and mysteries end? Where and when does the separation of fact and fiction occur?
The real answers, far removed from the speculation that has dogged him since he first met Lindstrom in 2002, are to be found in Karlsson's on-going journey of self-discovery, one he claims he will never complete. Although there have been many talented professional golfers similarly driven almost to distraction and despair by the inherent frustrations of the game they play for a living, few have investigated themselves more thoroughly in an effort to enhance their peace of mind.
"Robert was a very arrogant person when we met," says Lindstrom, who describes herself as a "leadership coach" more accustomed to working with business executives than top sportsmen. "He had all the patterns of a person who was trying to prove himself to everyone in the room. He was very insecure.
"It has been humbling to work with Robert," says Lindstrom. "He is so determined to grow into the true him. We are not working with mind control or anything like that. There are no voodoo dolls, and we don't stick pins in anyone. In fact, I am no longer connected with SVC, which was actually founded to do one thing: conduct leadership seminars and courses for businesspeople. My work with Robert is all about why he gets angry and what drives him to get angry."
Today, that ire is largely gone. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more contented individual than Karlsson. Married to the lovely Ebba and with two delightful children—Thea, 7, and Ceaser, 4—the family is happily domiciled in Monaco. Much of their time, however, is spent in Sweden, at a holiday house, what was once the local flower shop, in Vuollerim. The rest of Karlsson's outwardly idyllic life, judging by recent results—three top-10s in majors this year—is spent in contention to win golf tournaments.