Apr 28, 2009

The Swedish Connection: Pettersson, Karlsson take Liberty golf by storm

by Jake Petersen

Growing up in Kalmar, Sweden, Liberty freshmen golfers Tobias Pettersson and Robert Karlsson had no idea that the game of golf would bring them both to the same college. It is no surprise that the pair of Swedes grew up just a few miles from each other and teamed up to form one of the most prestigious golf club teams in Sweden. What is a surprise is the immediate impact the duo has had on Liberty golf in their short time here on Liberty Mountain, as the Flames are currently ranked No. 126 in Golfweek Magazine’s recent collegiate rankings and capped off their season with a second place finish at the Big South Championship.

It was Pettersson, 21, who arrived first at Liberty in the fall semester after catching the attention of Flames Head Coach Jeff Thomas. Standing around 6-foot-3 with a wiry frame with long, blonde locks and blue eyes, Pettersson was shocked when he made his official visit to Lynchburg at the end of the spring semester and found a seemingly barren campus.

Nonetheless, Thomas took a chance on Pettersson after his visit in May — and Pettersson took a chance and signed with the Flames.

“His e-mail looked interesting and we had been talking in January, February and March, and after looking at his tournament history and scores, we decided to bring him over on an official visit in May,” Thomas explained.

Karlsson, 20, arrived at the start of the spring semester after Pettersson put in a good word for him with Thomas, and was lured in by the opportunity to play golf in the United States. He could have opted to turn professional after playing well enough to qualify for the SAS Masters Tour in Sweden, but chose to follow his Scandinavian sidekick Pettersson across the Atlantic Ocean to Liberty. Thus far, the results have been nothing short of spectacular for both.

Pettersson finished his stellar fall season with a win at the ODU-Seascape Invitational while Karlsson made his Flames debut at the 2009 Rice Intercollegiate, finishing in a three-way tie for third highlighted by a second round of 67.

Karlsson’s solid play continued throughout the spring season, as he went on to claim medalist honors in back-to-back tournaments (USC-Aiken Cleveland Golf Palmetto Invitational and the First Market Bank Intercollegiate) and rack up Big South Freshman of the Year honors.

“Basically, (coming here) was a great chance for me to develop my golf game,” Karlsson said. “It’s a great school and after talking to a guy from my club in Sweden who decided not to play in the United States and regretted it, I decided to come. I had nothing to lose.”

“They have been out of high school for two years so essentially they’re juniors,” Thomas said. “They have a lot of experience and have been able to make the transition to college easier then most freshmen. Robert and Tobias know what their goals are, and they’re focused on them.”

Interestingly enough, the close pair grew up just miles apart from each other, and attended different high schools. In Sweden, students can choose which high school they want to go to depending on what “major” they want to study, so Pettersson chose Lars Kagg High School while Karlsson attended nearby Jenny Nystrom High School. And since there are no organized golf teams at the high school level, Karlsson and Pettersson instead played together at nearby Kalmar Golf Club throughout their teenage years, eventually teaming and forming one of the most prestigious club teams in Sweden.

“We have so many great memories traveling around together,” Pettersson said. “The best was this one tournament we played in at Barseback (which hosted the 2003 Solheim Cup and the Scandinavian Masters). We got in the tournament and played really well and almost won.”

For college golf teams, and even the PGA TOUR, Sweden has become a pipeline for recruiting and future super stars.

Karlsson and Pettersson are prime examples of the talent that exists overseas. Three of their teammates at the Kalmar Golf Club have since caught on at other colleges in the States (Johan and Andreas Andersson at NAIA school Southern Nazarene and Malin Mansson, who is a member of East Tennessee State’s women’s golf team), and the club plans to develop even more talent to send to college golf teams around the U.S. in the future.

“Robert wasn’t really recruited by anyone because he didn’t really have a great junior golf record. He was kind of a late bloomer, and we were lucky to get him,” Thomas said.

The late bloomer has given Thomas a viable No. 1 option at the top of his lineup, and Thomas projects Karlsson, recruit Max McKay (ranked No. 78 by Golfweek of all graduating seniors) and the rest of the Flames young squad to have an even better season next year when the Flames return to the links.

“We’re moving in the right direction. These are the guys God chose to bring here, and we are happy he brought them here,” Thomas said.

One of the biggest adjustments the Swedes encountered upon arriving at Liberty had nothing to do with golf course layouts or different weather conditions, but with their loose-fitting golf attire. It is a well-known fact that European players are a little more flamboyant with their threads than Americans, and both Karlsson and Pettersson are no exception to the trend.

“In Sweden, we are used to wearing tight shirts that we don’t have to tuck in,” Pettersson said. “Here, we wear really baggy shirts with longer sleeves and it took me a while to get used to actually tucking in my shirt.”

While most of their free time is spent beating golf balls at the driving range, both Karlsson and Pettersson are as laid back as can be off the course. Karlsson lists shopping at the top of his interests, while Pettersson prefers to “just hang out and watch movies.” Both are majoring in business and hope to somehow implement their love of golf to their degree if a career on the PGA TOUR does not pan out.

For this pair of friends, their golf journey extends into yet another summer that will be spent preparing for the challenges that await each of them in the fall. And whether it is fine-tuning their short games or perfecting their putting strokes, one thing is evident, Karlsson says as his face turns bright red.

“In a match (against Pettersson), I’ll put my money on me.”

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