Sneak Peek: This article will appear in the May 20 issue of Global Golf Post.
When it came to sports, Drew Olson was first and foremost a football player. And a very good one at that, having made his way to the NFL as a quarterback in 2006 after starring in that position at UCLA. But when the San Francisco Bay Area native retired after two years in the league, he turned his athletic attention to golf. And over the past decade he has ventured into the elite amateur game, qualifying for a few USGA championships and earning invitations along the way to such notable tournaments as the Walter J. Travis Invitational, in which he teed off Friday at Garden City (N.Y.) Golf Club, not far from Bethpage Black, where the PGA Championship is being contested concurrently.
Not surprisingly, he is not able to devote nearly as much time to golf as he once did to football, which was his full-time job when he played for the Baltimore Ravens and then the Carolina Panthers and his hometown San Francisco 49ers. His work as head of business development for Skyline Construction, a commercial real estate concern based in Northern California, comes ahead of that, and also marriage to his wife, Morgan, who is due to give birth to their first child this fall. But the sturdy 36-year-old Olson, who looks like he could still run over a linebacker or two, nonetheless manages to keep his handicap low and find ways to tee it up in the occasional event.
“I really enjoy tournament golf, and tournaments like the Travis that have high-quality competition as well as high-quality people are the best,” Olson says. “And I hope to play in more of them down the road. But work is very busy, and Morgan and I are about to start a family. So, I have to focus on those things, and get in my golf when I am able.”
Growing up in the East Bay town of Piedmont, Olson got in a little golf as a young boy. “I was 7 years old when my older brother Eric introduced me to the game,” he recalls. “Our father had an old set of Arnold Palmer blade irons and persimmon woods, and we’d take them to the local driving range, which was only about 10 minutes from our house, and whack balls for a while. Our dad was not really a golfer, but he sometimes came with us.”
Later, Olson started teeing it up at local municipal courses with his brother. “They all had great deals for juniors, and we could play for next to nothing,” he recalls. “I also had some relatives in Houston who I visited for 10 days or so each summer as a kid, and they all liked to play, too. So, when I went down there, we spent most of our time on the golf course. I remember a cousin and I playing 65 holes one day.”
Olson enjoyed golf enough to enter a handful of junior tournaments. “But other sports took over once I became a teenager,” he says. “Baseball and basketball, for sure. And football. And I did not play much golf after that.”
By that time in his life, Olson had already become a fairly accomplished player, shooting in the high 70s on good days and in the low 80s most other times. But his talent in the sport paled in comparison to his football skills, and he came to be regarded as the top high school quarterback in California. Once he graduated from Piedmont High, Olson enrolled at UCLA, where he played for the Bruins for four years, ending his career fourth in all-time passing yards in school history and third in touchdown passes. Olson still holds the single-season record for TD passes by a UCLA quarterback (34 in 2005) and the single-game mark (six against Oregon State the same season).
Both college and professional football also turned out to be pretty good for Olson’s golf game, and by the time he retired from the NFL in 2008, he says he was “living in the low 70s.”
Despite putting up such impressive numbers, Olson was not selected in the 2006 NFL Draft. But he signed afterwards as a free agent with the Ravens. The next season, he moved to the Panthers and after that to the Niners.
“I bounced around between the practice squads and the main teams at all three places,” says Olson, who is 6-feet-2 and weighs roughly 220 pounds. “I played a lot of preseason football with the Ravens, too. They were all good organizations, and I really had good teammates. Those are times I will remember forever, and I built relationships in the NFL that will last forever. Sure, it wasn’t easy getting cut, or not having more success as a player. But playing professional football was a good way to make a living, and I came out of it all in good health.”
Both college and professional football also turned out to be pretty good for his golf game, and by the time he retired from the NFL in 2008, Olson says he was “living in the low 70s.”
“At UCLA, I became friends with (future PGA Tour player) Spencer Levin, and though he was there for only a year before transferring, we spent a lot of time hitting balls together,” he says. “Going to the range was a great way to escape. Also, some of my father’s high school friends lived in Los Angeles, and they took me to LACC on occasion to play. The game came pretty naturally to me, and I think that had a lot to do with the hip motion that is so important to throwing a football being similar to what it takes to get the most out of your golf swing.”
Maturity was also a factor, Olson adds. “In high school, all I was trying to do was hit the ball as far as I could,” he says. “But as I got older, I began to appreciate the intangibles of golf, the importance of a good short game and being able to think my way around a course. One I got a handicap, I also started working hard to get better, and to get my index lower.”
When he got to the NFL, it also helped that Olson had lots of time to tee it up. “In the offseason, I’d work out in the morning and play golf in the afternoon,” he recalls. “I was able to play a ton.”
In fact, he was playing so much that he decided to give competitive golf a try, and in the spring of 2009 entered the fabled San Francisco City Championship, aka the City. “It was my first real amateur golf tournament, and I ended up making it to the semi-finals,” he says.
A couple of years later, when he was out of football and working for Skyline, Olson started entering tournaments more often. He qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2012 and 2013 and then for the inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball at the Olympic Club in 2015 with fellow Californian David Reneker. That last one was remarkable in part because the person on Olson’s bag for the qualifier was none other than his old college friend Levin.
“With the qualifier being in December in Sacramento, where he is from, he was off and able to help me out,” Olson says. “He couldn’t caddie for me when the actual championship was played that May because he was back on tour. But he was there for the qualifier, and he came back to do it again for me a few years later. Only that time, my partner and I did not make it through.”
A member of the Cal Club in South San Francisco, Olson would like to play more tournaments like the Four-Ball, and also the Travis. “But I am limited with how much time I can devote to competitive golf at the moment,” he says. “It’s just really busy.”
But he hopes to get out there a bit more often in years to come, and no wonder. Golf is his sport now.
Drew Olson in his first athletic life, as a quarterback, here playing for UCLA in 2005. Photo: Kirby Lee, Getty Images
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