On the heels of family tragedy, Amy Olson delivers an unforgettable finish at U.S. Women’s Open

Amy Olson is hugged by her caddie, Taneka Sandiford, on the 18th green during the final round of the U.S. Women's Open.

Jeff Haynes/USGA

The last question that Amy Olson answered on Monday was her favorite. She didn’t say so, but she didn’t have to — the look on her face told the story.

“You know, we had a really special relationship. He’s a big, tough, military West Point guy, loved the Army, but had a particular soft spot for the women in his life, particularly his wife and daughter-in-law. And just incredibly generous.”

Olson was talking about her late father-in-law, Lee Olson, who died unexpectedly on Saturday night, as she was gearing up for the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open. On Sunday, her husband, Grant, flew home to be with his mother — Lee’s wife — and Amy stayed on to compete for the title she so wanted. Olson didn’t end up on top of the leaderboard at day’s end, but she fought like hell, delivering an inspiring performance that would have made any family proud.

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The 2020 edition of the women’s national championship was held in December, the final month of a year marked by loss. The holidays are when we celebrate family. They’re also when we most acutely miss the people who aren’t here to celebrate with us.

Olson gave a series of emotional interviews in the minutes following her final-round 72. That’s among the challenges of earning your living in the arena: You’re often asked to process your rawest emotions in real time, in front of a camera. She acknowledged her grief, she spoke fondly of her family, and she kept coming back to the same word: “Thankful.”

Her performance was a reminder that even though we tune in to top sporting events to see the game’s very best do superhuman things we could only dream of — like A Lim Kim birdieing 16-17-18 to win the biggest event in the sport — it’s the human stuff that makes us so glad we watched. 

Any final-round result would have been understandable. Sunday had been tough; Olson prepped for her final round after a sleepless night, then waited around as the day’s play was delayed and then ultimately pushed to the next day without her hitting a shot. Monday dawned in Houston with temperatures in the upper 30s, but the fairways stayed soggy and the greens stayed firm. Conditions were terrifically hard. Olson bogeyed 2, 3, 4. Nobody would have faulted her for letting this one slip, nor for letting heart and mind wander.

But then, whether through luck, mindset or just extreme skill, Olson’s entire game locked into gear. She holed a mid-range birdie putt at No. 5 to get back into red figures for the tournament, then made another birdie at No. 6. When playing partner Hinako Shibuno bogeyed No. 7, Olson held a share of the lead.

A share of the lead seemed to free up her swing, and Olson, a high-ball hitter with above-average length off the tee, suddenly looked like the best player in the field. She seemed determined to fairway-and-green the course into submission, and it seemed to be working. When Shibuno bogeyed 10 and 11, Olson’s lead was two. She was the lone golfer left under par.

Amy Olson made birdie at No. 5 to change the trajectory of her final round.

Chris Keane/USGA

Olson is from Oxbow, a small town in North Dakota, where she was homeschooled through high school. She was a high achiever from an early age, winning the 2009 U.S. Girl’s Junior before going on to North Dakota State, where she won a preposterous (and record-setting) 20 collegiate events. She excelled academically, too, winning the Elite 89 award her sophomore year as the competitor with the highest GPA (4.0) at the national championship. Senior year, she held a 3.97 as an accounting major. (No word on where the GPA slipped.)

On Monday, Olson’s college coach, Matt Johnson, was eagerly watching the action — as was most of Fargo. Major championships don’t come often to the Bison.

“There’s been lots of text messages, for sure,” Johnson told GOLF.com. “All the former players are excited, as you’d expect, but also people from around the whole community.” 

North Dakota State was also where Olson met Grant, her husband. The two remain very much a part of the university; he’s the linebackers coach for the football team, although his full-time job is as Olson’s biggest fan. The two married in 2017.

All was good in the Olson world, with one professional exception: she hadn’t won on the LPGA Tour. “Coming out here, I expected to win really early,” she recalled earlier in the week. “It always kind of came easy to me in college.” In seven years, it hadn’t happened, including one major championship heartbreak in 2018 where she double-bogeyed 18 to lose by one.

That doesn’t mean those around her have lost any faith. On Monday, Johnson recalled a tournament in Minnesota when it was 35 degrees and windy. “It was brutal that day,” he said. Olson won her match.

“Every week she plays I think is the week she’s going to break through,” he continued. “But I really did have a feeling that this could be a good situation, because she likes tough courses and she’s seen every type of conditions and weather.” 

On Monday, she battled on. Par after par after par. Two-putt pars felt like first downs for an NFL team hanging onto a lead, running out the clock minute by minute. Three pars in a row. Then three more. Then three more. On No. 13, one reporter noticed her singing.

“I had Josh Groban’s song, ‘You Raise Me Up,’ in my head, particularly the part where it says, ‘You raise me up to walk on stormy waters,'” Olson said. “So that was kind of what was going through my head today.”

The resilience came as no surprise to Johnson.

“Everyone knows she won all those tournaments,” Johnson said, recalling her college career. “The thing is, I can’t remember a time when she was in position to win and didn’t. She was always solid down the stretch. She always stayed calm. That’s what stood out.”

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But suddenly, up ahead, something happened. A Lim Kim birdied 16, and then she birdied 17, and Olson’s lead vanished, just like that. Olson admitted afterward that she was surprised to see someone come from behind.

“I kind of assumed it was going to be between me and Hinako,” she said. Kim birdied 18, and suddenly Olson was behind, in need of a birdie. Instead a flushed hybrid at No. 16 rolled over the back of the green and into a gnarly lie in the rough. She made her first bogey in 11 holes.

As Olson walked up the 18th fairway, the tournament was all but over; she knew she needed to hole her approach shot just to force a playoff. All day, she’d stayed focused on staying focused, and she faced down one final wedge shot. It was some small triumph of the human spirit, then, when she hit that shot just two yards right of the pin, setting up a final birdie look. She rolled that in, securing a runner-up finish, just a shot behind the winner.

Olson spoke afterward about her faith and about things bigger than the game of golf. During the round, she said, she’d allowed herself to think only of the things she was grateful for. “It was a long list,” she added.

But she warmed to the day’s last question the most, the one about her father-in-law, about who he was. Like his daughter-in-law, Lee Olson was a doer.

“He loved to hunt and fish,” Amy said. “And we’ll have a lot of great memories to take from those activities, doing those with him.”

Dylan Dethier

Golf.com Photographer

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/GOLF.com, The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a 2014 graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.