By Brian O’Hare
IT’S not easy writing the full story about Kym Olsen winning a golf tournament because he’s not your average amateur golfer.
For a start, not many amateur golfers have a former professional career that includes playing a major on the US Champions Tour.
And, thankfully, not many amateur golfers have won a highly regarded national championship trophy then found themselves shortly afterwards finally publicly declaring they are suffering from severe mental issues that at times make playing a golf shot a paralysing and tormenting experience.
Many, many golfers may smile at that reference about playing a golf shot sometimes being a “tormenting experience”. Olsen won’t be one of them.
Battling with depression, the 55 year old struggles to find anything to smile about these days, on or off the course. There are also a number of physical issues that compound the situation.
So at the recent 2016 Australian Senior Amateur Championship at the Kooyonga Golf Club in Adelaide, from a spectators point of view, we had Olsen producing what was described elsewhere as “a fighting display of top class golf” to win the title.
The victory had all the right elements. Going into the third and final round on the Thursday, Olsen trailed by a stroke behind three-time champion Stefan Albinski and talented Canadian visitor David Schultz.
After 36 holes at what is a very challenging course the field of more than 150 of Australia’s top senior amateurs, with a sprinkling of Kiwis (and the one Canadian), had whittled down to only a half dozen or so who could realistically win, including defending champion Greg Rhodes.
Olsen, who had only reached the qualifying age of 55 in the middle of the year, had already won a couple of minor senior amateur events, but was playing for his first senior amateur Australian championship.
Kooyonga is a tough course in the best of times. It has hosted five Australian Opens and the blustery conditions didn’t make it any easier. All week there had been only one sub par round – Albinski’s magnificent 4-under 68 in the second round.
Olsen came out in the final round and shot a superb 2-under 70 to win the title by four strokes from Shultz with Rhodes third.
As we said, that was looking from the outside. On the inside, things are often a lot tougher for Olsen.
After the trophy presentations, I sat down with Olsen to do the traditional “winner’s interview”. Usually you have a beaming winner talking about how happy they are to have claimed such a great title.
We did canvass a lot of things. How he started playing golf with mates at the age of 12 in a tiny South Australian outback town, how he started an apprenticeship with the army at 15, eventually founded an international construction business, played golf all over the world, won some exotic sounding amateur titles in places like Jamaica, the Caymans, Samoa; played the Canadian Amateur Championship in 1987 and ten years later as a 36 year old played the US Amateur Championship.
Basically, as the decades passed golf weaved in and out of his life. There were times due to work or location or a couple of accidents, particularly a car accident in Chile where he broke one wrist and fractured the other, that golf was on the back burner for a few years.
As he approached 50 he really got the bug about turning pro and eventually secured a tour card on the senior tour in Asia.
He played there for half a year then returned to Australia in January 2012 and won the PGA Legends Tour qualifying at Camden Lakeside by a record 14 strokes.
He then won his first six Legends Tour events, 14 in total for the season and was named Player of the Year.
That year he also went through qualifying and won a spot in the US Senior Open on the Champions Tour. He had limited local preparations and missed the cut but now talks fondly of fulfilling a bucket list wish and playing alongside the likes of Mark O’Meara and Fred Couples, and having lunch with Bernhard Langer.
But there were some big changes after that year when Olsen decided to suspend his time on tour and support his wife who travelled back to Canada to look after her seriously ill mother. His mother-in-law passed away some 14 months later.
Somewhere there, Olsen began experiencing some serious mental and physical issues, including being diagnosed with Polyarticular Arthritis, which is a condition with inflammation affecting multiple joints. He recently had two surgeries for the arthritis, has multiple injections and needed medication and cold water treatments to complete the Adelaide tournament.
To regain his amateur status Olsen had to make a special application to Golf Victoria and then sit out two years.
And although he’s now had two wins out of three completed events in his fledgling senior amateur career, he’s also pulled out of 11 tournaments and, perhaps, not appeared all that friendly to some of his playing partners. He also played in the British Senior Amateur Championship, made the cut, but couldn’t fully play out the final round.
His explanation now might shed some light for some of those tournament organisers and playing partners.
“I have depression. I have to fight that every day and I fight it out there [on the course].
“I don’t want to sound like a big sob story but mental health is a big issue for me,” Olsen said.
“I have depression. I have to fight that every day and I fight it out there [on the course].
“And I don’t want to be around the people because I don’t want them to be affected by my things. I just can’t, sort of cheer up and I don’t want them to be affected by it because I want them to enjoy it and have a good time. I would like to think I am always appreciative of course etiquette and all that in everything but I just choose to just stay by myself.”
“Like I said, winning an event like this and knowing that I played reasonable well and some things falling into place maybe I can move on a little bit and hopefully actually enjoy it. Like today to finish the [final] putt I didn’t know if I won but I was just happy that I completed the event. For me that was a bigger win, with all due respect to the Kerry Packer Trophy, than winning the Kerry Packer Trophy, for me personally.”
“To the credit of all the people I’ve played with, who probably think I’m an idiot or something, they’ve all been absolutely fantastic.”
Olsen was hugely thankful for the support he has received from family and friends.
“My wife and my best mate they have been very good to me in terms of pushing, and Phil Boulton [former Legends Tour co-coordinator] has been absolutely fantastic. And two or three guys I play with back at the National [his home club in Victoria] who I play with are very supportive, understand what I am going through and just really spur me on and you know, give me that little bit of confidence and you need that.”
He was also very appreciative of the reception he had received from everyone involved with the senior order of merit amateur events.
“To the credit of all the people I’ve played with, who probably think I’m an idiot or something, they’ve all been absolutely fantastic. Absolute gentlemen at the best and I really, really appreciate that they do that. Because everyone thinks you should be laughing and joking and smiling and I just can’t do it.”
To me personally, it was a bit of a shock when Olsen couldn’t actually say he “enjoyed” playing golf. He did enthusiastically say he “loved” practicing and could happily spend hours just chipping and putting around a green. But not just going out and playing a round.
“You also need to play these [bigger events] for your own personal gratification,” he said later. “For me I don’t need it for the awards and all the other bits. I just like the challenge. I’ve played reasonably good here the last couple of days so that means I’ve got some things I can work on, some confidence to go forward that maybe I can challenge myself to maybe some things like the British Senior Amateur and the US and Canada. I probably will do those again if I can maintain this consistency, the ball striking and then see where it goes from there.”
Following our interview, Olsen sent us the following email, which we’ve abridged:
“It is certainly the first time I’ve been as open about it publicly and there are many more that are having much larger and more personal problems then myself.
I’m embarrassed to some degree about the whole thing but do know that speaking about it and tackling my issues head on to some degree does help. I’m lucky to have a small network of close friends who understand and “put up with me”.
“….. I truly hope that others in a similar situation can get some degree of solace or strength from it and that most may get a better understanding and place themselves in positions to help or recognise signs and/or symptoms of what their friends or others may be going through. I have been exceptionally lucky to have the friends I have and would not be doing what I’m doing or remotely achieving what I have without them. I 100% know that for a fact.
“I should also point out which I think I mentioned in our interview, the “reception” I have got from the multitude of players/event staff at the few events I’ve played in has been amazing. This game just seems to bring out the best in people while providing amazing high points for victory and/or best results while being able to humble us at times for no apparent reason.”
[This article also appeared in the December 2016 edition of Inside Golf]
Senior Amateur Results ASMA Photo Gallery