PINEHURST, N.C. — Cindy Olson was relieved.
After a rough opening day at the U.S. Adaptive Open, she slipped into her son Jake’s cart and looked down at the scorecard affixed to the steering wheel. Finally, she saw some good news.
There were a number of pars, a handful of bogeys, and … was that a birdie? This made some sense. She’d walked each of Jake’s 15 holes with him on Tuesday, and though she could hardly follow his neon orange golf ball in the air, she sensed he was playing better.
He seemed more comfortable, she thought. More at ease. There were fewer jitters than on Monday, and by extension, fewer mishaps.
Behind her, Jake had just climbed out of a greenside bunker and was now surveying a par putt up at the green. He gave that one a good run, but his ball halted 18 inches from the cup. A few seconds later, he tapped in for bogey.
Jake and his caddie/father Brian walked back to the golf cart, where Cindy — the family’s eternal optimist — sensed tension was building.
“You guys are doing great!”
“No, we’re really not,” Jake replied.
“But I just saw your scorecard,” Cindy contested. “You had a couple pars and a birdie.”
“Mom,” Jake said, now turning to face her. “You know that’s not our scorecard, right?”
Recalling the story later, Cindy could hardly stifle a laugh.
“He’s the blind one,” she said. “He couldn’t even see the scorecard, but he knew I was looking at the wrong thing.”
Through two days at the U.S. Adaptive Open, Jake Olson is in last place. There is no arguing it. No explaining it away. In fact, if there’s one truth from several hours with the Olson family, it’s that they do not take kindly to excuses.
“I think I follow Jake’s philosophy, which is blindness is not an excuse. I’m not going to use it as an excuse,” says Emma Olson, Jake’s twin sister. “Life is hard. You have to work for what you have. You have to work for what you want.”
Emma, Cindy says, is the “realist” of the family. She is a remarkably straight shooter with Jake, unafraid to heap praise, share criticism or provide a kick in the ass, should the situation call for it.
Emma’s honesty might be a function of her sisterly duty. But it’s also her purest form of protection. In a world all-too-willing to throw a pity party for Jake, family is where he receives a steady dose of reality.
Jake lost his eyesight during a bout with cancer at age 12, a dozen years and a lifetime ago. College football diehards might recognize his name; he played four years at USC, where he was the first blind long snapper ever at the Division I level. Today, when he’s not working, Olson is in the beginning stages of his second athletic career as a golfer. The problem is, he’s often working. Either as one of the founding partners of a consulting firm, a motivational speaker, a certified personal trainer, or for his non-profit, Out Of Site Faith.
“I think his greatest disadvantage in this whole tournament is the lack of practice,” Emma says. “All of these players, it’s high caliber, they’ve practiced for years. They’ve played in many tournaments. This is Jake’s second tournament — his first real tournament — and he works a lot. He has a full-time job and he speaks, so he just doesn’t have the hours of practice that everyone else here does.”
It should be noted that practice time is not Jake Olson’s only disadvantage in this tournament. In the Adaptive Open’s field of 96 players, Olson is the only completely blind competitor. There are other visually impaired players, but no one who raises to Jake’s level of impairment.
But Jake is also athletically gifted. He still has the build of a football player, and what his move lacks in length it more than makes up in speed. In Emma’s mind, those two things even out. It is not unreasonable to think that he’s only scratching the surface of his golfing potential.
“He’s only at the very beginning of this whole experience,” she says. “I think he’ll excel, he’ll be great … if he practices more.”
How does a blind person play golf? With a little bit of help, and a lot of confidence.
For the visually impaired, golf is a tandem sport. There is the action of swinging the club — understanding the depth, the distance, the feel, the shape. All that is up to him. And then there is the action of navigating the golf course. That job belongs to Jake’s caddie, his father Brian.
Typical caddie responsibilities fall under Brian’s domain, as do atypical ones. In addition to reading greens and counting off yardages, Brian picks Jake’s clubs, places Jake’s ball on the tee, and centers his club behind the ball. After Jake hits his shot, it’s Brian’s job to tell him how it went.
“I don’t know if I’m a caddie or an assistant or what,” says Brian, who was covered in sweat after Tuesday’s round. “But it’s hard work.”
During tournament rounds, Jake and Brian are inseparable. On the rare occasion they find themselves physically apart, Brian alerts Jake by patting loose change in his pocket. Around the greens, Jake likes to walk off the distance to the pin — his way, he says, of getting a feel for slope and touch. In those moments, Brian serves as his GPS.
“Five paces up, and you’ll be on the green,” he tells Jake.
“Now 10 more paces.”
“Okay, reach,” Brian says, as Jake extends the butt of his putter to touch the flagstick. Jake turns back in his direction.
“I’m right over here,” Brian calls out.
Once, Brian’s work kept him from caddying for Jake. Cindy filled in.
“It was a disaster,” she says, laughing. “But Jake was too sweet. His patience never wavered with me all day long.”
They have a good thing going — caddie and player, father and son. By now, their movements are down to a science, a synchronized dance. But it wasn’t always this way. Jake had to relearn golf after he lost his eyesight, which meant Brian had to relearn it with him. Patience, it turns out, goes both ways in the Olson family.
“The coolest thing about our relationship is that he’s out here with me for six-plus hours, lining me up, reading greens. You know, we’re grinding. We’re thinking through things. He’s calling the rules official over hoping to get me a hair better lie. We’re finessing everything,” Jake says. “He gets more enjoyment out of seeing me do this than he does playing himself. That’s a really selfless kind of love.”
Deep down, they’re “glad to be here,” “enjoying the experience,” and all the other platitudes. But on Monday and Tuesday at the Adaptive Open, Jake and Brian Olson were pissed.
They’d come to Pinehurst No. 6 to compete, and after two days, the competition wasn’t going according to plan.
“I thought the first day was nerves and just trying to get into it, it was a little more fast and sloppy today,” Jake says. “Golf is so weird. If you look at the two scores, I mean, today’s was one stroke worse. If I showed you clips of the two rounds you would have absolutely thought today was 10 times better than Monday.”
That’s golf, as Jake says. Sometimes the performance doesn’t match the result. On Tuesday, Brian didn’t need to say it for Jake to know it was true.
“I mean, we’re both super competitive because we care about it. We’re both very passionate. We’ll get frustrated and we’ll get happy,” Jake says. “We celebrate when we do well, and we get really pissed and bothered when we don’t. And I’d say he’s even more that way than I am.”
Cindy Olson was not pissed with how Tuesday went. Call her a softy, but she was proud of Jake’s performance. In fact, she always is. She laughed as she told me the story about the scorecard shortly off the 16th green.
“His score matters,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter to me. I just look at the good anyway.”
The good is not hard to find in Pinehurst. It’s everywhere. For the fans, who find inspiration on every hole. For the families, who get to see their children do something they never thought possible. And for the players, who have found not a golf tournament, but one another.
“Maybe you’ve already thought, since I’m blind, or since I have this impairment, I can’t do what other people do,” he said. “That’s why I’m here. It’s like, ‘No, man, you’ve just gotta go pick up a club and figure it out.’ It’s gonna be difficult. It’s gonna be frustrating, but it’s doable, you know? And if it’s something you love, then maybe I can be the thing that pushes you to try.”
At the Adaptive Open, there is even good to be found in last place. Just don’t expect Jake to admit it.
“It’s real competition. I think that’s that’s what motivates Jake, and it’s fun for us,” Cindy said. “This is not a feel sorry for these people. This is not a pity tournament. These people are good. They’re not babying anyone.”