With PBA World Series of Bowling IV just a month away, an international field made up of the best bowlers in the world is beginning to take shape.
To date, there are 13 countries represented in the World Series with Sweden currently holding the most entries outside of the U.S. with 10 players.
One of the pioneers of international PBA Tour competition was Swedish bowler Mats Karlsson who would compete on Tour for several seasons collecting three titles along the way. Now retired from professional competition, Karlsson is currently the Norway national bowling team coach.
Bowling writer Gianmarc Manzione caught up with Mats and shares some of the memorable moments of his career.
The Forgotten Man: Mats Karlsson
Meet the forgotten man who paved the way for the international stars on today’s PBA Tour
By Gianmarc Manzione
The story at the 1987 Professional Bowlers Association Greater Los Angeles Open was the televised 300 game Pete McCordic shot there and the six-figure reward it earned him, but the story that emerged after that is one as relevant today as ever before.
After thrashing Wayne Webb in the opening match, 300-249, McCordic faced a dilemma most people would love to have on their hands—trying to find a way to come to terms with the fact that he now was $100,000 richer than he had been just moments earlier.
McCordic shook hands with his opponent for game two, a player by the name of Mats Karlsson from someplace in Sweden called Goteborg, and then promptly buried his face in his towel after taking his seat. The emotionally spent McCordic had etched his name in bowling history, but the fellow with whom he had just shaken hands embodied bowling’s future.
Karlsson, who finished just three pins shy of Steve Fehr for the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships All-Events title in 1980, already enjoyed the distinction of being the first non-American player to win a PBA Tour title. He earned that distinction as an amateur at the 1983 AMF Grand Prix in Crawley, England, where he mowed through a field dotted with hall of famers such as Dick and Pete Weber, Marshall Holman, Dave Husted and Joe Berardi.
In the stepladder finals, Karlsson averaged 233 as he bested two more hall of famers on his way to the title—first Gary Dickinson, and then three-time Firestone Tournament of Champions winner Mike Durbin, whom he trounced by 79 pins, 260-181. Durbin later hailed him as “the Earl Anthony of Europe.”
“Those guys were my heroes,” recalls Karlsson, who today coaches Norway’s national bowling team for the Norwegian Bowling Federation. “When I joined the tour my goal was to get the U.S. players to recognize the best in the world. We never got to compete against the best bowlers on my side of the Atlantic, so this was a chance to let Americans know we were pretty good.”
Comparisons to the likes of Earl Anthony may be the sort of praise most bowlers feel compelled to shy away from. But when you journey an ocean away from home with a notion that you’re good enough to make a living on the lanes, you tend not to shy away from things. Karlsson knew he was good, and he was not afraid to say so.
“If I don’t make enough money I won’t come back next year,” Karlsson told Bowlers Journal’s Dan Herbst in the early 1980s. “But I know I’ll make enough money.”
Karlsson’s game was impressive enough to the PBA players he contended with back then, but it is the bravado of the kid who knew he would make enough money that they recall just as vividly.
“He was not afraid to win or be in the heat of the action,” recalls Marshall Holman, whom Karlsson defeated for his final PBA title at the 1988 Brunswick Memorial World Open. “When he got it going he was very, very good.
“Other foreign-born players had come out on tour from places like Japan or Australia, but they did not have much success. Mats was the first one to come over here who could really compete at our level week in and week out.”
That Grand Prix win in ’83 did not officially count as a PBA title because Karlsson won it as an amateur, but it counted enough to embolden him to win again in 1986 at a PBA Tour stop in Torrance, Calif. Officially a PBA member by then, Karlsson picked up where he left off in Crawley three years earlier, defeating hall of famer and three-time U.S. Open winner Dave Husted for the PBA Southern California Open title.
And as McCordic looked up from his towel to watch Karlsson open the second match of the 1987 PBA Greater Los Angeles Open with a strike the following year, Karlsson was on his way to doing it again for the third time in his career. He gave McCordic a little taste of what McCordic had just given Webb, besting him by nearly 30 pins, and went on to bowl a three-game set of 704 on his way up the ladder to claim the title.
No other non-American player at the time had even won a single PBA title, no less three of them. Venezuela’s Amleto Monacelli, who became a PBA member several years before Karlsson, still was yet to win his first.
“I think Mats came over to the U.S. more prepared for Tour life,” recalls former touring player, Steve Wunderlich. “Amleto was very young when he came over and he kind of grew into a tournament player while on tour. But when Mats arrived he was ready, and a very competitive player.”
By 1985, three years into Monacelli’s stint on the PBA Tour, it was Karlsson, not Monacelli, whom Herbst crowned “The Best Foreign Player on Tour.”
Today, as Karlsson’s coaching experience takes him everywhere from Norway to Malaysia, he sees the seeds he sowed all those years ago bearing fruit around the globe.
“I still think the U.S. is the best bowling country in the world, but there’s a lot of stiff competition around the world today,” Karlsson says. “I go to all the world championships with the Norwegian team now and I see the talent growing a lot. Europe is still pretty strong.”
The dominance international players enjoyed at last year’s PBA World Series of Bowling IV cast a spotlight on the emergence of the talent Karlsson eyes around the globe. Today, that talent has names like Andres Gomez, Stuart Williams, Osku Palermaa, Dominic Barrett, Mike Koivuniemi and others. But there was a time when it had only one name—Mats Karlsson—and it is that person whom today’s international stars have to thank for paving the way.