Tales Of A Golf Champion – Greg Olson, 1980 Canadian Men’s Amateur Winner

When the Royal Canadian Golf Association (now Golf Canada) formed in 1895 on the grounds of what was then called the Ottawa Golf Club, the first national amateur championship for the country soon followed.

Tom Harley of Kingston won that first Canadian Amateur Championship, defeating Alex Simpson in the final by a score of 7&6. Simpson, then the Secretary of the Ottawa Golf Club, was the impetus of the event, and his close call might have prompted thoughts that a winner from the National Capital Region would soon follow in subsequent years.

While George S. Lyon would capture the title eight times from 1898-1924, by the time he took up golf the Richmond, Ontario athletic legend was a resident of Toronto.

Little did Simpson know that it would take 85 years after the initial championship for an Ottawa golfer to win the Canadian Men’s Amateur.

The feat was accomplished by Greg Olson in 1980, and four decades later it still stands alone.

That summer Olson clipped national honours with a four-round total of 290 at the Ashburn Golf Club in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He won by three shots over Stu Hamilton and Steve Hayles, and four shots over Dick Zokol.

In light of the forty-year anniversary of the victory, Flagstick Golf Magazine recently reached out to Olson to share his story, which ultimately included much more than one national title as a highlight of his career on and off the golf course.

Greg Olson – left, receiving the Earl Grey Trophy at the 1980 Canadian Men’s Amateur

A National Champion – Forty Years On

Greg Olson was born into a military family to Patricia and Earl Olson in 1954 in Bitburg, Germany, but along with his brothers Lee, Jeffrey, Terry and his sister Suzanne, he grew up in Ottawa, Ontario.

Greg and his wife Tracey, originally from Kingston, Ontario, now live in Seattle, Washington with their daughter Samantha (Sam) who just finished her first year at the University of Victoria as a writing and sociology major.

Enjoying a gap year after graduating from Rideau High School, Greg ended up at the University of Florida on a golf scholarship and majored in marketing. After graduation in 1978 Greg returned to Ottawa and worked for York Advertising from 1979 to 1982 before turning pro.

Greg continues with his history of work experience – “When I stopped playing in 1987, I ended up in Toronto working for an ad agency that had Apple Canada as a client. While in Toronto, I received an MBA from the University of Toronto in 1992 through night school classes. By 1994 I had actually joined Apple and they wanted me to move to California. Newly married, Tracey and I left Canada for Silicon Valley, working for Apple in Cupertino, just outside San Jose. That’s where our daughter was born. I eventually became the U.S. Advertising Manager for Apple. I worked at Apple for a total of 15 years in two separate stints and have lots of Steve Jobs stories. My career post-golf is essentially a high-tech marketing career. In addition to Apple I worked at Hewlett Packard and Symantec in the San Jose/San Francisco Bay Area. After 21 years my wife and I were ready for a lifestyle change and with our daughter we left California and moved to Seattle after I accepted a job managing the Amazon Prime Retention Strategy team in 2015. Left Amazon and I now work for Adobe managing a team of digital marketing consultants working with mostly high-tech Fortune 500 companies across the US. I have had a blast working in high technology, especially the 21 years in Silicon Valley.”

Flagstick – When and how were you introduced to golf? 

GO – “Growing up in Ottawa, I played baseball, high school football and hockey, but I fell in love with golf. As a kid I remember watching Arnold Palmer win Masters Tournaments in 1962 and 1964 and I got intrigued. I would take my Dad’s putter and putt on the carpet inside the house. That eventually grew to me stealing balls out of his bag (only the new ones) and some of his clubs and heading out to a field next to the house we lived in on the airbase at RCAF Station St. Hubert, just outside Montreal where he was stationed from 1964-1967, and hitting balls for hours. I cut or lost a lot of those new balls (unlop 65’s). My dad never minded, thankfully.

My Dad watched my love of golf grow. He’d taken me to the driving range a few times starting when I was 8 or 9. One Friday night, out of the blue in the summer of 1967, he asked me if I’d like to play golf with him and an Air Force friend the next morning on a real course. I was super excited. I was 13. The course was the Chambly Municipal Golf Club just outside Montreal. Had never seen the grass on a real putting green. Was amazed. Still have the scorecard in a scrapbook somewhere. I think I shot 108. I played with a set of clubs that my Dad had bought for my Mom. Lady McGregor irons (3,5,7,9, W) and some old woods my Dad had. First set of my own was a set of Spalding Kro-Flites with aluminum shafts. The first set of real clubs I ever bought was a complete set of First Flight (Arnold Palmer’s company) irons and woods from Stan Kolar, the pro at the Chaudiere. That would have been the spring of 1972. I won the amateur playing a set of Ben Hogan director irons, a Toney Penna driver and an old Spalding Cash-In putter. By the time I turned pro I was on the Titleist staff and played their clubs. Today i have a set of Mizuno JPX 900 forged irons and TaylorMade m3 driver / metals.”

Flagstick – Where did you play golf in Ottawa?

GO – “The first club I joined was actually Pineview in 1969 with a bunch of friends from Rideau High that included Mike and Bill Brown. Would ride my bike from Manor Park where we lived all the way down St. Laurent Blvd and out to Blair Road with my clubs slung across my back. We all moved to the Chaudiere in 1971 because of the reputation, the number of good players there, and the fact that it was a better course (with fast greens!). For a couple years in the mid-70’s when I’d come home from college I played at Hylands. My Dad was a member there because of being ex-military and it was a lot cheaper than the Chaudiere. By the time I graduated from Florida though I went back to the Chaudiere where all the good players were, and the competitive atmosphere was so good. I played out of there even after turning pro in 1982.”

Winning 1979 City and District, July 1979, Royal Ottawa GC

Flagstick – Is there anything that stands out in your golf career?

GO – “As I look back it was all so much fun. I made lifelong memories, friends, and have stories that I cherish. I saw the world and I’m proud of what I accomplished. I think what was meaningful to me is that I had early success and that’s what motivated me to keep going. I won the 1971 City High School tournament and then the City and District Junior Championship a month or so later and I was hooked.

I came close to winning the Quebec Junior and Quebec Amateur early on, finishing 2nd in the junior in 1971 and second in the amateur in 1972. I shot what at the time was a competitive course record 65 at Royal Ottawa in the first round of the Quebec Amateur in 1974 but followed that with 75-77 and managed to lose. That was a big disappointment. But I built enough of a resume to get a golf scholarship at the University of Florida. Won an individual tournament title my senior year (1978) at the Cape Coral (Florida) intercollegiate shooting the lowest 72-hole score I would ever shoot (-9, 279) against a really good field that included Indiana U with Eric Kaufmanis (another Ottawa-area golfer) on their team.

Came back to Ottawa after graduating and won back to back City and District championships in 1979 and 1980. Finished 4th, 1st and 3rd in consecutive Canadian Amateurs in 1979, 1980 and 1981 (was stroke play in those years) which I am extremely proud of. Winning in 1980 was great. But consistency and having a chance to win more than one over those 3 years is something I was especially proud of and, I think, showed winning was not a fluke.

Did finally win the Quebec Amateur in 1982 (by 6 shots) at Pinegrove in Montreal which was retribution after not winning in 1974 after that 65 at Royal Ottawa. At that point I felt like I’d accomplished enough in amateur golf and decided I better give professional golf a shot rather than ever regret not trying. 

Turned pro in the Fall of 1982. Had an up and down professional career over the next 5 years in Asia, North American and Europe. Played in 6 Canadian Opens (made the cut the first year I played as a pro in it at Glen Abbey in 1984). Finished 4th on the Canadian Tour Order of Merit in 1983 in my first year. Won an abbreviated Canadian Tour Championship in 1985 in a playoff for my only Canadian Tour win. Tried the PGA Tour School 3 times but never played well at the right time in it. Instead, I went to Spain in the Fall of 1985 for the European Tour School, got through pre-qualifying to get to the finals and then won my European Tour Card in the 6-round final. Played the European Tour in 1986 but didn’t get into a lot of events and there was no shuffle in those days to get me more starts. Shot 70-72 to miss qualifying for the British Open (at Turnberry) in 1986 by 2 shots. That was a big disappointment.

Decided to take a break in 1987 and here is it 33 years later and I’m still on break. Loved the team aspect of my career when I was part of a team…especially at the U of F but also as a member of 4 Quebec Willingdon Cup teams including winning the individual and team title the year I won the Amateur in 1980. And being named to the Canadian World Amateur/Eisenhower Cup Team in 1980 was a big thrill.

As for holes in one I only have 2. First one was crazy…watched a guy in the group ahead of us as we walked up onto the tee make one during a practice round for the Canadian Amateur in Calgary in 1981. Then I stepped up as they walked off the green and holed a 7 iron. Crazy. Second one was two years ago in Destin, Florida where my wife and I own a condo. Long dry spell in between.”

2nd Career Hole in One, Oct 2018, Kelly Plantation GC, Destin, FL

Flagstick – You described your Canadian Amateur win in Martin Cleary’s Ottawa Citizen column – “It’s my biggest thrill in golf”. At that moment, I’m sure it was but has there been anything in golf to surpass that feeling? If so, please describe that new thrill.

GO – “It certainly was at the time. It was a happy plane ride back from Halifax that night. My Dad picked me up at the airport, I remember. The next day was a Sunday and I played the A Class Intersectionals for Chaudiere at Rivermead. I got a standing ovation as I walked into the Clubhouse when I arrived. It blew me away. One of the consequences of winning was being named to the Canadian Eisenhower Cup Team that played in the World Team Championship 3 months later at Pinehurst #2. I’d beaten Dick Zokol to win the Canadian Amateur. He was on that team and is a good friend to this day. We finished tied for 5th as a team. I was low Canadian and 12th individually overall. Very proud to have represented my country. Especially being the national amateur champion at the time. So that definitely stands out.

Making the cut in the Canadian Open in 1984 made me feel like I belonged. But I think I shot 81 the last round and fell from something like tied for 30th after 54 to the back of the pack. Played with Tom Lehman that last round. I think he shot the same score. I remember we walked down 18 telling each other how bad we were and laughing. Getting through the grind of the European Tour School two years later and getting my card was a thrill. Felt like validation.

Last thing that stands out and that I was very proud of was being named the Athlete of the Year for 1980 in what now are the Ottawa Sports Awards. That honor from my home town was overwhelming and I remember the evening like it was yesterday. Partly because my parents and family were there, and they didn’t really get a chance to see me play a lot. So, this was sharing.

Flagstick – Could you tell us about your time at the Chaudiere and the golfers you competed against? 

GO – It was a real player’s club. Brought out the best in me because you were motivated to play well with the number of competitive players that were challenging you every day. Barry Laphen was before my time there. We became friends after I turned pro and he was the head pro at the Gatineau Golf Club. When I first joined the ‘Chaud’, Mike Defalco was the king of the hill. A junior like the rest of us but a really good player who played serious tournament golf. Had to learn to play real tournament golf to be a good player there in those days. Dennis and Owen Charlebois were really good players there and became good friends. And yes, became good friends with Brian Harrocks and Wayne Livingstone. Mike Brown was my best friend in those days. Mike caddied for me in the first Canadian Open I played in at Royal Montreal as an Amateur in 1980. Terry Kolar’s Dad Stan was of course the pro at the Chaud during most of those years. We’d hang out in the pro shop a lot.

Terry and Stan made clubs in the back room, so I got a pretty good grounding in club making during those years. Later, Brian Vance joined and won the Canadian Juvenile Championship one year. Brian was younger than our core group. Watched him become a good player and enjoyed encouraging him even after he turned pro. When Stan retired, and Neil Cascagnette got the Head Pro job there he and I became best buddies the entire time I was playing professionally. A great guy and a tremendous friend who we lost to cancer way too soon.

Reconnected with Eric Kaufmanis a few years ago and we’ve chatted a couple times given he’s in Vancouver and I’m in Seattle. Same with Wayne Livingstone. We reconnected a couple years ago and had a long chat reminiscing.” 

L to R, Daughter Sam, Wife Tracey, Me @ Home, Bainbridge Island, WA, May 2020

Flagstick – What are you most proud of in your life?

GO – “I am most proud of my wife, my daughter and my family. The most significant thing for me was becoming a parent. My daughter Sam was born on December 24, 2000. That was quite a Christmas. Life has never been the same. It was the best thing we ever did.

But I am also so grateful for what golf gave me including the experiences, the friendships and the sense of self, confidence and accomplishment. I was a super shy kid. Golf gave me a sense of who I was and brought me out of my shell. I still deep down like defining myself as a ‘golfer’. I wouldn’t trade any of it.”

Flagstick – Are there any people who have been important in your personal and professional development in your life you would like to recognize?

GO – Personally, I would like to recognize my Dad for sure for introducing me to golf and giving me a sense of how to treat people. He was a great man. We lost him 5 years ago at the age of 99. He’s buried in the National Military Cemetery on Beechwood. Look forward to going there every summer when we visit the cottage. In golf, David Leadbetter had a huge influence. I started working with him as my swing coach not long after turning pro. He gave me a foundation to think about the swing that i still rely on. Professionally, my first boss at Apple Canada had a huge influence on me. A great gentleman and friend named Bill Meldrum. He helped me picture the possibilities after golf.”

Flagstick – After the mid 1980’s, did you give up golf or have a full-time job?

GO – “Kinda and yes. The last year I played full time was my time on the European Tour in 1986. Took the break that never ended then following that season. The job stuff I talked about above. I still love to get out and hit balls most weekends as my personal down time. Don’t play much primarily because I don’t have time. I’m close to retiring and plan to play more. What it means now when I do play however is that I don’t have much of a sense of actually playing the game or a short game that will allow me to save shots. Index is 4 but I’m a high 70’s shooter. I do get back to the U of F in Gainesville every October for ‘Gator Golf Day’ and the team fundraiser. See all my old friends and Gator golf alum, play for a couple days, and get to a football game. That’s pretty much the extent of my playing right now.”

Flagstick – Do you have any personal or professional regrets in your life?

GO – “I have zero regrets but a couple of disappointments. The only local major tournament I never won was the Alexander of Tunis. I finished 2nd twice and 3rd twice. The worst of those losses was losing in a playoff in 1973 that I was only in because I’d signed an incorrect scorecard after Round 1 for a shot higher than I should have. That was a tough lesson. Robbie Jackson beat me on the 3rd playoff hole at the Hunt Club. Robbie actually now lives in Seattle too and we’ve reconnected. Another one was getting bad information from the USGA as I was about to turn pro and mistakenly withdrawing from the 1982 US Amateur (The Country Club, Boston) after qualifying for it the only time I really tried. I was told, mistakenly, that to enter the PGA Tour School I’d immediately forfeit my amateur status. I decided to enter it and found out a week later that it hadn’t been true, but the deed was done. Honestly, my biggest disappointment though? Neither my wife nor my daughter ever saw me play in a tournament or hit a shot that mattered. I would love to have shared with them who I was for the first half of my life with them in a gallery somewhere.”

Flagstick – Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you would like to add?

GO – “Take a look at www.mindtrakgolf.com. My old friend Dick Zokol, who I had to beat to win the Canadian Amateur in 1980 (and who returned the favor when he won, and I finished 3rd the next year!), and I have been working to develop a mobile app that helps golfers improve their mental performance. We’re about to release the Beta version of the app and, if successful, consider a commercial launch later this year. The concept is based on how Dick managed his own on-course mindfulness during the latter stages of his career on the PGA Tour in the late 90’s. Lots of fun and a way to combine my passion for golf with my passion for technology (both halves of my working life).”

After Greg left Ottawa for Toronto in 1987, he never came back permanently. But when someone asks where he’s from his answer is, proudly, always ‘Ottawa’. He wears his Senators hoodie everywhere in Seattle as well as his RedBlacks hat. As he says, “They might be the only ones in Seattle.” Greg comes back to Ottawa for a couple of weeks each August to the family cottage on Lac Coeur north of Buckingham. “That will hopefully be longer when I finally retire and might consider joining a local club to play more, says Greg. “I love to come back to Ottawa. It is still home to me.”

Greg Olson thanked Flagstick for reaching out to him with a nice note – “Thank you, first of all. This was quite a personal ride thinking about all this stuff all these years later. It was fun reminiscing.”

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