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Hard work starting to pay off for Karlsson after tough year

PGA TOUR

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- More than 5,000 miles separate PGA West from Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club. It was the six inches between Robert Karlsson's ears that was the problem, though.

In July, Karlsson pulled out of the British Open after just two holes of practice. He suffered from a severe case of the yips and couldn't pull the club back.

The Swede didn't play again for a month, spending much of his time working on the mental side of his game with a sport psychologist. He also sought out Sergio Garcia, who was playing alongside him that day and had battled his own demons with a constant re-gripping of his club a decade earlier.

"I looked at why things happened, and those things I keep to myself, but I don't really know if I know anyway," said Karlsson, who, simply put, concluded that the two sides of his brain weren't speaking to each other. It created a sort of mental gridlock. "The most important thing was to get it going."

He did so by working backwards, first by hitting chip shots on the driving range at his club back home the Monday after the British Open before eventually working his way up to full swings. Karlsson didn't feel normal, however, until the second round of the Wyndham Championship in mid-August.

"When I think back how that could happen, it's such a weird thing," he said.

The final stage of q-school is a long way from the British Open, figuratively and literally, but there was nothing weird about Karlsson's swing on Wednesdsay.

The Swede shot a bogey-free 66 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course to sit just two strokes off the lead of Steve LeBrun after the first of six rounds. The top 25 (and ties) at the end of the week will get PGA TOUR cards for 2013.

Despite Karlsson's struggles, this is a somewhat strange place for him to be.

The 43-year-old has won 11 times in Europe and in 2008 finished in the top 8 in three of the year's four major championships before finishing atop Europe's Order of Merit and sixth in the Official World Golf Rankings that season.

That he is here, though, is also a tribute to his hard work.

In earnest, Karlsson's woes began a month before the British Open, on the 16th hole of the final round of the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club.

His ball in the middle of the fairway, Karlsson stood over it for 2 minutes, unable to pull the trigger. Once he did, his shot sailed 40 yards off line.

"I knew something wasn't right," Karlsson remembers.

When he arrived at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, the problem persisted.

"I kind of tried to forget about it," Karlsson said. "But I started to think 'I don't want to be here.' I didn't want to put myself through 36 holes of what I did at the U.S. Open."

When he returned to competitive golf, Karlsson missed two of his next four cuts on the PGA TOUR, though he also managed a couple of top 25s in Europe.

Given his status, or lack thereof, Karlsson was forced to have to go through the second stage of q-school in order to reach to this week's final stage. He shot four rounds in the 60s to finish 18 under and earn medalist honors at Southern Hills Plantation Club in Brooksville, Fla.

"I've had the whole spectrum this year," Karlsson said. "Augusta to second stage; It's quite a humbling experience to play second stage. You learn and understand and to not take things for granted and start to appreciate the success you had before.

"I know it will feel very weird to play Day 5 here because we never play more than four days, so it's important to not overdue it and just keep going."

So far, so good.

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