Swinging for the fences is Josh Olson. David Reese photo
By DAVE REESE
Josh Olson has a killer golf swing.
Compact, powerful, no wasted energy.
He doesn't have the big loopy swing like John Daly's, or the smooth graceful arc of Ernie Els'; rather, Olson's swing could be compared to Tiger Woods'; tight and compact, speed picking up through the downswing, the hands racing to beat the clubhead through the ball. His followthrough finishes with his body in an arched, elongated C, as if something from the sky is pulling him heavenward,
Actually, something is.
Olson, 28, sees the parallels between life and golf and he's making it his life work to teach people about both. Golf and God. "You break the golf swing down, and there are a lot of life parallels," he said.
He's taking his message of faith and golf on the road, travelling to far-flung places like Hong Kong and Japan, teaching golf and preaching the Word. He left in May for three stops on the Long Drivers tour in Oklahoma, Illinois and Iowa, and he spent a two-week stint in Japan in July.
Olson, born in Billings and raised in Kalispell, qualified last fall for the Long Drivers of America tour, a professional tour just for long hitters. At about six-three, 220 pounds, Olson said he's a "midget" on the tour, compared to one player who is 6-foot 7-inches, 280 pounds. "I'm not the biggest, I'm not the fastest, but I'm efficient," he said.
Brian Pavlet of Arizona is the guy to beat on the LDA tour, with winnings of $43,500 last year. On the women's side, Nancy Abiecunasof Loveland, Colo., won the RE/MAX World Finals with a drive of 332 yards, 16 inches.
On the LDA tour, Olson averages over 350 yards, his longest going 462 yards in competition.
He's so long, in fact, that he has six hole in ones to his name - three of them on par four's.
He's aced the 361-yard par four eighth hole at Buffalo Hill Golf Club in Kalispell; the 338-yard par four 11th hole at Eagle Bend in Bigfork; and the 329-yard second hole on the north course at Whitefish Lake Golf Club. His other aces were on par three's at Buffalo Hill and in Washington.
OLSON, the son of Jon and Rhonda Olson, never played competitive high school golf during his time at Flathead High School and Flathead Christian School, but he excelled in baseball and basketball.
While his father was building homes at golf courses around the flathead Valley, Josh might sneak off to hit balls. "I grew up on every golf course around here," he said.
After high school he qualified for professional mini tours in Washington and Canada before a friend convinced him to try out for the Long Drivers of America. He placed seventh at qualifying school, and is yet to be ranked on the LDA tour, but judging from his performance against his peers so far, he has hopes for staying in the top 10. "I had no idea I was that long, from a world standpoint," he said.
At LDA tour events, the 48-person field is bracketed in a double-elimination format, with two golfers going head to head on the tee box. They get 10 balls each, and two minutes, 45 seconds to hit them. The balls are measured where they stop. No compensation is given for tail winds or head winds. There's about $60,000 in prize money divided among the top 12 spots, with first place winning $15,000.
Olson's key to his length are clubhead speed and a square club at impact. Core strength and muscle mass also contribute. Olson's clubhead speeds are clocked around 150 mph, which is very high. He also hits the ball squarely.
"Having a swing speed like that doesn't do you any good if you don't hit the ball squarely," he said.
Olson's clubhead speed is higher than professionals like Tiger Woods, who average in the high 130s, but Olson admits that standing on a tee box on the PGA tour is a different animal. "We have 10 balls, they get one," he said.
"John Daly or Tiger Woods are extraordinarily long by PGA standards, but they'd be in the middle of the pack by long-drive standards."
Olson breaks down competitors on the Long Drivers of America tour into two categories: the "muscle heads" and the "classic swingers."
The muscleheads are the ones that use their extreme body size to power the ball. They're not always the longest on the tour. "Typically the guys that are good golfers are the longest hitters," said Olson, who carries a scratch (zero) USGA handicap. He said only a small portion of the people on the LDA tour are accomplished golfers in all phases of the game.
There are two ways to get into the LDA; qualifying school, or qualifying locally. The LDA tour events take four people from the public who can qualify onsite. That's what major league baseball player Jose Canseco did, and Olson will be competing against him.
"His hands are so fast, if he has any kind of golf swing he could be competitive," Olson said. "It'll be interesting to see."
At his last tour event earlier this spring, Olson finished in the middle of the pack with a 397-yard drive, getting edged out of the money by one yard. "There's not much you can do about that," he said, "but I should be able to keep myself in the money."
Olson gave up his excavating business in Seattle to return to Montana and pursue his golf dreams. It was a leap of faith for him and his wife, Hailey, and two children, to create their business, "Drive the Distance," but Olson said it's all working out.
He combines his long-driving abilities with about 30 trick shots that he uses in his presentations. He hits balls while kneeling on an exercise ball to show balance and core strength. He hits golf balls suspended in balloons, and can hit a ball with his putter over 300 yards.
Being on the Long Drivers of America tour and having all these tricks in his bag gets Olson into places he might never get to go - places like the exclusive Hong Kong Country Club. He uses this opportunity to bring a message of golf - and faith in God - to his listeners. With a broad, beaming smile like Richie Cunningham, it's easy to see why Olson gets in doors others might not. Like his golf swing, he's hanging it all out on the line, every day and on every swing.
He loves golf, he said, "but really it just gives me the platform for my ministry. Coming in as a long-drive professional gives you a lot of credibility."
In places like Japan, some golfers never get to see an actual golf course. Instead, they spend their careers hitting balls at six-story driving ranges. Golf is big in the far-east, rivaled only by the thirst for spirituality.
"People are pumped about golf over there," he said. "Our ministry is a huge need."
Josh Olson breaks the swing down into four areas that correlate with life: grip, aim, stance and posture.
Grip - How you grip the club is the beginning of the golf swing. "What are you holding onto in life?" Olson said. "What are the important things in life, and what are your priorities?"
Aim - The aim is one of the most critical pieces of the golf swing, Olson said. "Where are you focused?" Olson asks. "What are your dreams? If you're not setting goals, just playing away, you're just wandering aimlessly.
"When you aim a golf club down a fairway, you have to be able to see that target."
Stance - Your balance and your stance are the foundations that your life - and your golf swing - are built on, Olson said. "Is your house built on rock or sand? Everything has to start with balance ... a balanced lifestyle."
Posture - This is where all the fundamentals come together, he said. "What are the tools you're using to get you to your goals?
"Posture is the most neglected part of the golf swing... as well as life."