Ask Drew Olson what’s easier – playing a USGA championship setup or behind center with a 300-pound nose tackle staring him down across the line of scrimmage – and football wins every time.
A former standout at UCLA, where he started more than 40 games in his four-year college career, the 6-foot-2-inch Olson is obviously much more experienced on the gridiron.
This week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur at Conway Farms Golf Club and Knollwood Club, the companion stroke-play qualifying course, is the first USGA championship for the Piedmont, Calif., native.
So naturally, Olson, 29, would be more comfortable scrambling from the pocket than scrambling for par.
"I think this is tougher," said Olson after carding an 8-over 79 at Knollwood on Saturday. "This is not what I am used to. I am used to running from guys or dropping back [to pass] or getting hit. It’s a little different standing over a 4-footer."
And he doesn’t have any teammates to lean on. In golf, it’s you against the golf course, with a caddie to assist with strategy and club selection. In football, Olson had linemen to block, backs to carry the ball and receivers to catch the ball. Everybody played a key role to make a play successful.
On the golf course, mistakes can’t be masked. Olson discovered that on Saturday when he closed with two double bogeys over his final nine holes after opening with a solid 2-over 37 on the outward nine.
"I wasn’t hitting the ball like I was the last couple of days," said Olson, who works in commercial real estate for Jones Lang Lasalle, a Chicago-based company. "With a course like this, you get exposed. That’s what happened to me today. If you have any weaknesses, you are going to get exposed."
Olson never took golf too seriously as a youth. He was a two-sport star at Piedmont High, playing quarterback on the football team and catcher for the baseball team. As a senior, he was one of the country’s top-rated recruits and he chose UCLA for its strong academic and athletic tradition.
It didn’t take him long to see game action. He started five games in the second half of the 2002 season after starter Cory Paus separated his shoulder. Through his performance, he got the starting job for the 2003 season and appeared in 12 of 13 games, starting nine in a 6-7 campaign.
But as a junior in 2004, Olson threw for 2,565 yards and 20 touchdowns. Then as a senior in 2005, he led UCLA to a 10-2 mark and a regular-season victory over Oklahoma and a come-from-behind win over Northwestern in the Vitalis Sun Bowl. That year, he guided the Bruins to four final-quarter, double-digit comebacks, plus the 22-point rally in the Sun Bowl.
"I think I threw three interceptions going into that [Sun Bowl] game and I threw three in the first half," said Olson. "It was kind of an awkward game. We ended up scoring 54 points and coming back. That was obviously nice but I started [the game] a little off."
He finished his UCLA career second on the school list in passing yards (8,532), completions (664) and touchdowns (67).
Olson signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2006, but spent his time backing up Steve McNair and Kyle Boller. He also played with the Carolina Panthers (2007) and San Francisco 49ers (2007), backing up starters Jake Delhomme (Carolina) and Alex Smith (San Francisco).
He never threw a pass in a regular-season game, but had a couple of touchdown tosses in preseason, although Olson can’t recall how many he threw. He also played a season for the Amsterdam Admirals in the now-defunct NFL Europa.
Realizing he was never going to be a successful NFL quarterback, Olson left pro football in 2008, but his competitive fire never retired.
Once in the real estate business, he began playing more golf. In college, he dabbled in the game with friends and sometimes played with fellow Northern Californian and current PGA Tour pro Spencer Levin, who was at UCLA for one season before transferring to New Mexico, but was too focused on football to play any tournaments.
But being a good athlete – Olson still looks like he could strap on the shoulder pads and helmet and play – helped him make a transition from competitive football to golf. Quarterbacks and kickers also seem to excel in the game. Tony Romo has made multiple attempts at U.S. Open qualifying. Ex-NFL quarterback John Brodie played in both the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open. John Elway, Mark Rypien and Trent Dilfer are also strong golfers.
Olson says it could have something to do with how quarterbacks have to rotate their hips. It could possibly be that quarterbacks are generally excellent athletes.
In 2009, Olson qualified for the California Amateur at Lake Merced Golf Club and reached the semifinals of the San Francisco City Championship, losing to eventual champion Carlos Briones.
Olson still has yet to join a club – he keeps his USGA Handicap Index through an affiliate club (one without real estate) – although he practices a lot at a facility near the Oakland airport that’s used by the University of California-Berkeley team. Over the past few years, he’s gotten to know a few Cal players, including 2012 U.S. Amateur semifinalist Brandon Hagy.
Just watching those elite players has given Olson a sense of what he needs to improve.
"I just think putting and getting a better short game," said Olson of the keys to taking his game to the next level. "I need to be consistent and not be making big numbers. It’s making putts at crucial times."
Qualifying for the Mid-Amateur was a major step for Olson. It’s giving him a taste of competing against elite amateurs who are similar in age. Of course, he still misses football and will likely do so the rest of his life, but golf has at least given him an arena to continue competing.
"These events are fantastic," he said. "It gets the blood flowing.
"Hopefully I can go low [on Sunday at Conway Farms] and get into [match play]. You throw out the [stroke-play] scores with match play. You just want to get in and battle against somebody else."
Spoken like a true quarterback.
David Poteet and Greg Kennedy work in the same Atlanta-area insurance agency and their offices are five doors down from each other, but they never play golf together. Poteet, 42, is a member at Berkeley Hills and the 43-year-old Kennedy plays out of TPC Sugarloaf.
"There are probably not too many people who can say that in this tournament," said Poteet of having co-workers in the same Mid-Amateur.
Poteet opened stroke-play qualifying with a 77 at Knollwood Club, one better than Kennedy who played the same venue.
"He plays a lot more golf than I do," said Kennedy.
Kennedy, who has played in seven U.S. Amateurs and now four U.S. Mid-Amateurs, has been at J. Smith Lanier & Co. since 1997, while Poteet joined the 700-employee company in 2007. The two have often competed against each other at local and regional events, but have never been paired.
They will join forces for a charity competition sponsored by Travelers, a large insurance company, in the Atlanta area in early October.
"It’s a four-man team," said Kennedy. "I have no idea what the format is."
Poteet, who is competing in his first USGA championship, said there were no friendly wagers prior to the Mid-Amateur. In fact, the only time he’s seen Kennedy this week was at the players’ dinner Thursday night at Conway Farms.
Poteet competed on the Hooters and Nationwide (now Web.Com) tours in the 1990s after graduating from Florida Atlantic University. He won a Hooters event in Memphis, but eventually left professional golf to raise four children. Kennedy, who played at the University of Georgia with Paul Claxton and USA Walker Cup Team member Franklin Langham, also briefly dabbled in professional golf, but had little success. He got his amateur status back in the 1990s and reached the round of 16 at the 2001 U.S. Mid-Amateur at San Joaquin C.C. in Fresno, Calif.
While playing the Nationwide Tour in 1996, Poteet made one of his greatest saves, and it had nothing to do with golf.
Traveling south on Interstate 65 from Huntsville, Ala., Poteet noticed a car that had swerved off the road during a storm. His traveling companion, John Nieporte, was ahead in another vehicle and somehow didn’t see the accident.
Poteet quickly crossed the median to get a closer look. The vehicle had careened into a small pond. To get the car’s inhabitants out, Poteet used his 1-iron to shatter the windshield. He rescued the three passengers, which also included a teenage boy. Nieporte, who saw Poteet was no longer behind him, had exited the highway 5 miles down the road and returned to see his companion rescuing the three people. Richard Steele was a schoolteacher in Birmingham, but Poteet couldn’t recall the names of the other two family members.
Later that year, the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association honored Poteet with the Mary Bea Porter Award, which recognizes an individual in golf who, through a heroic or humanitarian act, saves lives or betters the lives of others. Porter-King, a former USGA Executive Committee member who still works many USGA championships as a volunteer Rules official, saved the life of a drowning boy at a home on an adjacent fairway during a qualifying round for the 1988 Samaritan Turquoise Classic.
Poteet was invited to the awards dinner in New York, where the emcee was CBS sports announcer Jim Nantz.
Nieporte, whose father, Tom, was then the head pro at Winged Foot, also attended the event.
"I thought it was going to be a small ceremony," said Poteet. "There were like 900 people at this thing. Johnny Miller was being honored. It was huge."
Poteet has not kept in touch with the Steele family, though they sent him a touching letter. But one thing that did happen as a result of the incident.
Both Steele and Poteet purchased cellphones.
"A lot of people didn’t have them at that time," said Poteet. "We had to flag down [cars] to call an ambulance.
"I did it [rescued the family] because you hope someone would do it for you."
Knollwood Club might be the companion stroke-play qualifying course for this year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur, but it has a rich history. In 1956, the H.S. Colt and C.H. Alison design played host to the U.S. Amateur, where a 16-year-old Jack Nicklaus made his debut in America’s oldest national championship.
The Columbus, Ohio, native, who had already competed in four U.S. Junior Amateurs, advanced to the third round before losing to Ronald E. Wenzler, of Ridgeway, Ky., 3 and 2. He beat George H. Fulton Jr., of Roanoke, Va., 1 up and Joseph F. Switzer, of St. Louis, 5 and 3. E. Harvie Ward won the title.
This year, Nicklaus’ son, Gary, is competing in his first U.S. Mid-Amateur, where he opened with an 81 at Conway Farms.
In 1982, Knollwood hosted the second U.S. Mid-Amateur, won by William Hoffer.
Odds and Ends
Gene Mattare, the longtime head professional and general manager at Saucon Valley C.C. in Bethlehem, Pa., came to the Mid-Amateur as part of a future sites visit. The club will be hosting this championship in 2014. He got a little bonus when his 26-year-old son, Matt, shot a 2-under 69 at Knollwood to share the first-round lead with three other players. … John Ehrgott, of Peoria, Ill., missed last year’s Mid-Amateur because he was going through training for a new position at Bayer Pharmaceuticals, despite being the qualifying medalist at his sectional site. In a twist of fate, he qualified for the Mid-Am this year after his division at the company was recently eliminated. Ehrgott shot a 69 at Knollwood to share the first-round lead.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.