Q&A: Amy Olson on that deeply emotional U.S. Women's Open run, the LPGA's pickleball craze and replacing Mike Whan
Amy Olson's hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, had 18 inches of snow on the ground when she picked up the phone on Tuesday. On Thursday, Olson (...)
Amy Olson’s hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, had 18 inches of snow on the ground when she picked up the phone on Tuesday. On Thursday, Olson heads to Palm Springs, California, to work with instructor Ron Stockton before the start of her eighth season on the LPGA next month.
The 28-year-old Olson chatted with Golfweek about that deeply emotional run at the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open after the sudden loss of her father-in-law, her hopes for the next commissioner and the pickleball craze that’s spreading on tour.
Tell me about your offseason so far and what it has been like in Fargo?
We spent Christmas with Grant’s mom and brother and it was good just to have that time, especially after his father passing, with family. But then right after Christmas Grant and I took a little vacation to Big Sky (Montana) for a couple days of skiing, which is the first time I’ve skied in probably 14 years.
It’s one of those things we talked about and I kept saying next year, next year. Trying to prolong it past my golf career. I skied growing up and my dad started sending me articles of every professional athlete who went skiing and broke their leg. Really subtle. … So I gave it up. But at some point, when golf becomes your life and your career, there are certain things that you’re like maybe I do want to do it again, and I was kind of at that point with skiing. And Grant loves to ski. We had so much fun. It was also just good to get away after that period of mourning. … The sun continues to rise and set and you continue to live.
We were in Fargo all of January, which I treasure that time. I got our basement set up with memorabilia. We got a ping pong table. We play a lot of pickleball of course, and just seeing friends and family.
I can imagine that in ping pong you’re pretty competitive too. How is your ping pong game?
It gets really intense. So my brother lives with us, and he and I played all the time growing up. He and I, our battles are super epic. We had to institute a rule of no throwing ping pong paddles because there are cupboards with glass in our basement.
How did the pickleball craze start on the LPGA? Are you responsible?
I think it’s the fastest growing sport in North America from what I’ve heard. My mom started me and my family into it, and it just became a thing Grant and I really enjoyed doing together. Most people enjoy playing golf after work and Grant enjoys doing that, but most of the time I’ve been at the golf course all day so I want to do something else, and pickleball became that outlet for both of us when we were living in Indiana.
I don’t know if it was through myself, or even just independently a lot of people picked it up over quarantine and bought paddles and started playing with their families. (LPGA players) couldn’t go to restaurants, we couldn’t go to a lot of places … but pickleball courts are outdoors and you’re able to distance. We ended up forming some groups that would go play after practice rounds or even on tournament days.
But I’m probably the biggest advocate of pickleball. There’s a good chance that if you walk by me on the range, I’m probably talking about whatever pickleball shot I’m working on.
I don’t know much about pickleball. What’s your strength and what are you working on?
My strength is definitely my backhand. A lot of people struggle with their backhand being a lot weaker, but I’m actually a lot stronger on my backhand. I think it’s because of the way I hold it, like a ping pong paddle. And my backhand is super strong in ping pong.
A couple shots I’m trying to work on, one would be the overhead slam, the forehand. Because if it’s about head high, I’m super strong. If it gets above that, it’s almost the same motion as a volleyball spike.
Who is the best pickleball player on tour and who has the potential to be the biggest threat?
I do have to say that I’m probably the best on tour now. I would say the person I’m most nervous about potentially beating me would be Anne van Dam. She’s extremely athletic and so competitive.
Who else plays?
Ally Ewing and her husband, Katherine Kirk, Emma Talley and her boyfriend Patrick. Oh, Sophia Popov is super good. She has this ridiculous backhand cut that’s really hard to get. Sophia and Anne play together a lot. They’re probably the best team right now.
What are your biggest goals for this year?
My putting is probably the thing that I saw the most progress with over 2020. Really excited to continue that. I don’t talk a lot in terms of outcome goals because I think a lot of that is out of your control, and a lot of that is rooted in comparison with other players. But if I’m going to look at a few things that continue to keep me motivated and keep me competitive and wanting to pursue this, I would love to get a win, I would love to win a major championship and I would love to play on a Solheim Cup team.
When you look back on the USWO in Houston, how do you view it now and what did you learn about yourself?
Overall, I just have nothing but positives that I take out of that week. Having a hole-in-one was such a highlight. … I played really solid all week, but don’t get me wrong I can look back and find plenty of shots that I would change, as everyone always can. But I never quit, I never gave up, and that’s ultimately what sport is about. … It’s like we always talk about, never let a bad shot lead to a dumb shot. Never letting yourself mentally kind of slide because you’re in a bad position. I’m really proud of how I handled everything mentally … and then everything that happened on a personal level. I still look back and it was an out-of-body experience on Sunday. I remember it, but at the same time I feel like I was carried through that day because it was just so overwhelming, trying to process those emotions while at the same time trying to accomplish what was in front of me.
A lot of people learned of Amy Olson for the first time that week. What do you hope they took way from watching you compete that weekend?
I think the biggest thing I would want people to know is that it’s not about Amy Olson. That ultimately, I live and I exist and I play to bring glory to God. And if that’s from other people seeing me and seeing the strength and the poise I played with under those circumstances, that wasn’t me, that was ultimately Jesus Christ carrying me through a difficult time. Not everyone sees it that way and I get it. I don’t ever want to force someone to think in a certain way or live a certain way, but that’s what I believe. … If that can give someone else who is going through a difficult circumstance hope, I really hope that it does.
You’re on the LPGA Board that will ultimately choose the commissioner. What are the most important qualities in a new commissioner?
I do think that as a commissioner you need to be humble. You need to be willing to listen. Humility and approachability are very important. But then at the end of the day, you also need commitment. When you make a decision you have to be willing to stand by that, you need to be able to articulate why you made a certain decision. You need to have vision. You need to be able to look into the future and see where the LPGA could be. There are so many things that are changing right now in our environment. I think particularly in the area of technology and data, there’s so much more the LPGA has room to grow and expand. This is just on a personal level, I would love to see someone who is really excited about some of the technology and data developments that we can really capitalize on as an organization.
What specifically are you thinking about in terms of technology and data?
From a fan’s perspective of being able to watch the LPGA tour, if you don’t have access to Golf Channel or aren’t watching TV when we’re on network, it’s really hard to follow someone. You can hit refresh on the website, but if you go to the PGA, you can see oh their drive went left. Now they’re in the right-side bunker. You can see more detailed data watching online. That’s just a really basic thing right now. … I think there are so many things that are very misleading on our website, for example driving distance or greens in regulation. … I know we can sit here and compare the PGA Tour all day and they have way more money and way more resources than we do, but just strokes gained, proximity to the hole. There’s just so much more that is really beneficial from a player perspective to be able to have that data to really know where you can improve, where you stand in relation to other players. For girls coming up who are in college or in high school to be able to see accurate data of what we are doing week in and week out would be extremely helpful.
What did you appreciate most about Mike Whan personally?
I think how much he cared and does care and continues to care. I have no doubt that when Mike Whan leaves the LPGA, he’s still going to be our biggest advocate and fan. I have zero doubts about that. … I think everyone felt like they could go to the top person at the LPGA and be heard.
When I was entering college, in 2009, and the LPGA was losing events and the purses were going down, I genuinely didn’t think there was going to be a place to play when I graduated college. During that time Mike took over, and by the time I graduated we were on the upswing adding events, increasing purses, increasing TV coverage. And all of a sudden, that was a viable option for me to be able to play professional golf as a career. I can genuinely say he didn’t know Amy Anderson sitting in North Dakota with that dream, but he knew there were young girls around the world with that dream, and he really cared about giving them that opportunity.