News & Opinion

Golf helps blind athlete beat the odds

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – During the week of the Los Angeles Open, the name by which I remember the annual PGA Tour stop here, many celebrities from film and sports make the trek up Sunset Boulevard to Riviera Country Club to see the world’s best golfers.

One celebrity this week will walk those fairways outside the ropes, never seeing the bunker in the middle of the sixth green or the magnificence of the drivable par-4 10th.

Instead, 20-year-old Jake Olson will have to rely on the sound of the crowd, because he lost his eyesight to cancer at age 12.

Olson lost his left eye when he was 10 months old due to retinoblastoma, a cancer of the retina. He eventually would have his right eye removed when he was 12 in 2009 from the same disease.

In the years when Olson could see, he was focused on many sports, but eventually gravitated toward golf.

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PHOTO COURTESY OF USC ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT/JOHN McGILLEN
USC’s Jake Olson, who lost his sight at age 12, celebrates with teammates after his first long snap in a game last season.

PHOTO COURTESY OF USC ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT/JOHN McGILLEN
USC’s Jake Olson, who lost his sight at age 12, celebrates with teammates after his first long snap in a game last season.

“I remember I played Torrey Pines and I was like, Man, I just really love this game I want to see how far I can pursue it,” said Olson, who is from Huntington Beach, of a visit to the San Diego municipal course at age 12. “Obviously then that fall I found out I was going to go completely blind, which kind of threw a wrench into that idea a little bit. But I continued to play and really tried to practice hard and eventually got to the point where I was playing just as good as when I could see, and then better and just seeing where I can go with it.”

Golf has become a sanctuary for Olson, who shoots in the 70s. It’s a place where he can go and be untethered from circumstances that he didn’t choose, but clearly has dealt with successfully. Olson, a 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound redshirt sophomore, is one of the long snappers on the Southern Cal football team and working toward a degree in business administration.

Standing on the range at Riviera, Olson, with his trusty guide dog Quebec lying by his side, eagerly discussed how golf has made his life better. 

“This weekend, I went down Friday evening, woke up Saturday, hit balls, pretty much practiced Saturday and Sunday,” Olson said of his trip home to Huntington Beach, a seaside community just south of Los Angeles. “I'll try to play, probably Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I try to practice when I go home again this weekend. We’ve got a three-day weekend, so I'll probably play.”

Olson relies on Quebec off the golf course and turns to his father, Brian, when he is on the course. Brian sets up his son, making sure that the club is square to the target, and provides what Olson calls normal caddie conversation before the shot.

Olson says he doesn’t want to know too much but just enough to execute the shot.

“There's mental demons out here I deal with,” Olson said. “If I know I've struggled on this hole before, going long left or whatever, there's things. But, yeah, not seeing trees or not seeing different bunkers, there's definitely been shots where I hit the shot and my dad goes, ‘I didn't tell you about it, but there was a branch right to your right here; it could have psyched you out, could have made you swing a little differently if you knew the branch was that close through your follow through or something like that.’ So, there's definitely certain aspects, yeah, where I definitely think it's just focusing more on the shot than the surroundings around you, and I leave that to my dad to worry about.”

Olson enjoys his time walking the course, freed of the need for Quebec’s guidance.

“He loves golf,” Olson said of his dog. “I'll usually just take off his harness and leash, and I walk with my dad,” Olson said. “That's another cool thing about golf. I don't need any guidance out there. I can just walk by myself.”

Golf and the required muscle memory helped Olson envision playing football again. As a long snapper for the Trojans, who finished last season ranked 12th in the nation, he has found a position that requires hitting a consistent target 7-8 yards away.

“I believe my mind was trained throughout playing golf to really hone in on that muscle memory and apply it to snapping,” Olson said. “So, golf definitely again helped me envision myself playing football in that way.”

Olson remembers some courses from when he still could see, including SeaCliff Country Club, where his family holds membership, but the knowledge is unnecessary for Olson to excel.

“Is it the utmost importance I know what every hole looks like? No,” he said. “I just want to know the context. I just want to know exactly what's going on this hole, if it is a dogleg left or right, if there's a tree line on the right that is going to be jail. Whatever it is, I just want to know those. I don't want to know where every little bunker is or know exactly at what yardage the lake starts up there. I don't really care about that too much. I just want to know the context of the hole.”

Maybe we could all learn from Olson about how he looks at golf.  

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli