Olivia Mehaffey was too young to experience US rock band The Killers taking the music world by storm with their hit single, Mr. Brightside in 2004, but she’s been singing her own version of the modern classic for the best part of twenty-three years and counting. The world amateur number 17’s bubbly personality is as infectious as her talent is bright and it’s her ability to extract the positives out of any given situation that has proved her most valuable asset, last year of all years.
“I feel like I just try to make the best of every situation,” Mehaffey said as an unprecedented 2020 amateur campaign drew to a close with a win at the Arnold Palmer Cup. “There’s no point being at home and being miserable. I always go to, ‘OK, what’s the best I can make from this situation?’
“I haven’t competed since the ANA in Augusta and my next competition is in December and I’ve had the best three months. I’ve made a lot of changes. I’ve worked so hard. Of course I could sit on my butt and think I’m not going to compete for three months but I’d rather make the most of the time.”
Before a certain global pandemic turned the world upside down, Mehaffey had her calendar all figured out. Then 22, she was readying herself for a career as a professional; the golfing world firmly at her feet. A star Sun Devil on the Arizona State University women’s golf team, the Tandragee and Royal County Down member was preparing to lead her college side into the National Finals on home soil in Arizona before graduating the programme with an historic legacy left behind at ASU.
March began like any other, Mehaffey banking her 20th career top-10 finish as the Sun Devils romped to a dominating win at the Dr. Donnis Thompson Invitational in Hawaii. Spring break celebrations were underway ahead of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on an incredible amateur career. Q-School was on the horizon. Endless possibilities thereafter. Then news struck that the virus known as Covid-19 was of far graver concern to the globe than anyone could’ve envisaged.
“We were in Hawaii, we’d just won a tournament and we had two days for our spring break that we were going to enjoy it but they turned out to be the worst two days,” Mehaffey recalls of hearing the news that the NCAA had cancelled the remainder of her Senior year due to Covid. “We were at Pearl Harbour when we found out and I just wanted to go back to Arizona immediately. It sucked and everyone felt for me because I was the only Senior and they realised how sad it was to end such a great four years this way.”
Uncertainty around the globe meant nobody’s future was guaranteed, leaving Mehaffey with a headache of apparent options amid an unstable 2020 outlook: “I was talking to Coach [Head Coach Missy Farr-Kaye at ASU] because I wasn’t sure if we were going to have an extra year or if there was going to be a Q-School. You talk to so many people and they give you their opinion and it makes it worse because they’re like, ‘oh there’ll definitely be a Q-School’ and ‘no, you won’t get an extra year in college’ and I’m like, ‘oh my God, I need someone to tell me a definite answer!’
“I told Coach, ‘listen, if I can go to Q-School, I’ll go to Q-School but if there’s no Q-School, I’ll come back’. My priority was to turn pro; I feel like I’ve been ready for a couple of years now and she was so supportive. She said even if you want to come back for a semester and turn pro in January that’s fine, but then the decision was made for me.”
With Qualifying School off the schedule for 2020, Mehaffey was able to take ASU up on their offer of an extended year, undertaking a Masters in Organisational Leadership in her fifth year at the University. It meant the anti-climactic end to her Senior season could be righted, allowing Mehaffey to resume lifelong friendships in Arizona whilst plotting her course to the paid ranks, albeit a year later than planned.
“It might be a blessing in disguise that I wait another year,” she says. “It wasn’t a good time to get sponsors – money is tight with Covid so who really wants to give their money away? Covid will still probably be here at this rate anyway but hopefully things have settled down.”
If there’s one trait Mehaffey exudes in spades, it’s patience. Whether it’s her demeanour on the golf course, an enviable ability to put a bad shot behind her and move on to the next, or her understanding of the here and now, resisting temptation to turn pro ahead of time when many with lesser golf games have made the jump, Mehaffey’s perspective has never wavered. Sure, her four year stint may have been extended to five but what’s another year in a lifetime, and with the LPGA Tour going nowhere, Mehaffey has embraced these latest circumstances as further opportunity to cultivate her craft before turning pro.
“I think I’m almost too hard on myself sometimes, and maybe too realistic,” she explains. “Sometimes you see people turning pro and I’d kind of wonder, why would they turn pro? I’m just not that person. I don’t think I’m good enough yet. I’m always looking to improve, thinking ‘this is what I want to get to before I turn pro’.
“Plus I loved college from the first moment I got here and I really value having a degree. It means a lot to me and it goes a long way in life. You never know what’s around the corner and for me, I didn’t think school was going to be so hard. I’d put all this work in and I wasn’t going to throw that away by turning pro early – I wanted to get my degree. I adore ASU, it’s so special to me and I want to leave a legacy here like so many great players have before me and leave my mark on the programme – that’s so important to me.”
Whatever Mehaffey goes on to achieve next year, her legacy is already assured. Boasting a career 72.74 stroke average which puts her in the NCAA’s Top-25 on the all-time charts, Mehaffey is only the third Sun Devil to be a four-time All American and is the undisputed leader of Head Coach Missy Farr-Kaye’s team. Her success could be attributed to so many things – none more than natural talent and hard work – however, it’s the influence of the people around her, from her parents cheering from the back seat to her coaches input at the front, that seems to drive Mehaffey towards boundless opportunity.
“I’ve such a good relationship with both my coaches [Missy Farr-Kaye and Michelle Estill], I’m so close to them,” she says. “They’re a little bit less hands on with the coaching side of things – they’re more like managers – being the Mom. I like to go and talk to them about things… ‘What do you think about this?’ and they’re like, ‘take a day off!’ They’re honestly amazing and I’m so grateful that they gave me this opportunity to come here because it’s been one of the best experiences of my life so far.”
Her parents, Evelyn and Philip are always there to offer support when called upon too but a trust has long existed between Mum and Dad, and daughter Olivia, that if a feeling persists in her golf-ridden gut, then she has carte blanche to follow it.
“My parents are so good,” she explains. “They’re like, ‘do what you want to do, we know you’re going to make the right decision’. Even when I was going to college, I committed really young – I didn’t even visit campus – and I remember walking down to the bedroom saying, ‘Mum and Dad, I’m about to call Coaches and tell them I’m going to ASU!’ and they were like, ‘OK, if you think that’s good, we trust you. Go for it!’ They’re so supportive but in a back seat role which is really nice. I would prefer to talk to my coaches and other people who have more knowledge in the industry itself rather than them but I know they know me as a person so I’ve got that side covered too if I need it.”
The overwhelming atmosphere of positivity in her inner-circle doesn’t mean Mehaffey isn’t prone to darker days but it’s her ability to flip a scenario on its head and find the good in adversity that has shaped the strong woman she has become today. Never was that force-field of enthusiasm more tested than in 2019 when Mehaffey broke her hand in an unfortunate fall whilst hiking. There was never a question that she’d recover from the injury but it was the timing of the accident that hurt deepest; a fall that would rule Olivia out of not only the Women’s Amateur Championship at her home club of Royal County Down, but a double blow of the hammer in also missing out on the 2019 AIG Women’s Open.
“I’ve never really let myself get into a terrible space but I kind of did after that,” she admits. “I really blamed myself, thinking ‘well, if you didn’t go hiking, if you were only doing something else’. I felt like it was self-inflicted but at the end of the day, you can fall doing anything and I realise that now but it was hard to see it that way at the time. It was probably the worst experience I’ve been through but in a way I look back and I’m grateful for that time. I learned a lot from it and you’re not going to have a career out on Tour without an injury along the way so having that and seeing how it feels will help me deal with something similar in the future. You can’t just sit in your room and play golf, you have to live a bit too.”
That last line really hit a chord as I spoke to Mehaffey. So often we encounter superb young talents so immersed in the game that you’d worry if they ever escaped it. For Olivia, just because she’s a dedicated high-performing athlete doesn’t mean there can’t be room in her life for something else.
“I’m a very social person,” she laughs. “A funny thing is that I was always freaking out before I came to college … I was like, ‘I’m so worried, I’m going to have no friends, what if I don’t meet anybody?’ I remember David Kearney [Mehaffey’s former ILGU coach] saying, ‘Olivia, there are many things you should be worrying about but making friends is not one of those!’ I’ve made so many good friends over the years and that’s really important too. I’m happy to be here at 6am and leave at 5 but I can still go to dinner at 7, you have to have a bit of balance in there.”
It’s an equilibrium Mehaffey has achieved seamlessly throughout a remarkable amateur career, from her days before ASU back home in Ireland where her results were rewarded with a Curtis Cup selection and subsequent victory with Team GB&I in 2016. She was enjoying campus life away from the fairways every bit as much as she was on them during ASU’s march to victory in the NCAA Championships in her freshman year stateside while individual victories have followed her team exploits at every juncture, except her injury disrupted Senior campaign last season where she top-10’d in two of her final three tournaments as her stellar form eventually returned.
Mehaffey’s rank of 17th in the world charts is testament to that consistency – in fact, in five years she’s never strayed from inside the top-20 bracket, and with her name an ever-present on the upper-echelons of amateur leaderboards around the globe, her star has subsequently risen to prominence. Sadly, however, being in the public eye, even at this early stage of her development, can have its drawbacks.
It was after Mehaffey fired a course record 66 on the way to the Woodbrook Scratch Cup last summer that she felt the brunt of a faceless, internet troll. I remember reading the vile comment – completely non-golf related – and hoping someone would delete it before it ruined Olivia’s day. It was the type of comment that you see celebrity’s suffer the world over – the type of vitriol that forms a disconnect between famous people and their fans as social media accounts get taken over by third parties. In Mehaffey’s case, it was her problem to deal with, and to my surprise, she did, as only she knows how; to flip the playbook on its head by retweeting the remark and killing the coward who composed it with kindness.
“I remember reading an article about me by a journalist and thinking, ‘that is not right’. I think he said I choked at a tournament and I did not choke at all so I’ve experienced stuff like that but never something personal,” she admits. “And it’s funny because I was doing a couple of interviews before it happened and we were taking about females in sport and how hard it can be being objectified and I was like, ‘I’ve never experienced it’… And then I got this message.
“I remember Carla [Reynolds – ILGU] sent it to me. I hadn’t seen it; it was up for a few hours and I’m not great on Twitter.. and she goes, ‘I hope you’re OK?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m fine. I know that if I want to be a professional golfer for the next twenty years, I’m going to have to deal with plenty more stuff like this.’”
And that’s the bleak reality of life in the spotlight in 2020 and social media platforms like Twitter that allow anonymous users free rein to type what they like without consequence.
“It’s just out there,” Mehaffey agrees. “That’s the crazy world we live in and unfortunately it’s not a nice place sometimes and people are totally entitled to their opinion but I’m not going to let some loser on twitter who has no name and doesn’t have the balls to come out define my day. I remember the first time [with the journalist who said she choked], I think it was after Helen Holm so I was young and I remember crying, being so upset to my Dad. Asking him ‘can you please call the journalist?’
“You see if I read that now, I would not care one bit. I feel like it’s about maturing and accepting that’s the world we live in. If you were to read some of the comments about females in sport, it can be an absolute disgrace and I hope it gets better, but it’s just something we have to live with. I told myself there’s one negative comment and there must’ve been 80 nice messages saying ‘well done’, ‘great playing’, so why do I care about one person I don’t know giving me a negative comment when there’s people there that actually means something to me, who I care for, who I love, who sent me nice messages. Why would I focus my energy on the other one?”
Instead, Mehaffey has been focussing her abundance of energy on the type of player she is on the golf course, and the type of person she is seen to be off it. The two remain inextricably linked but Mehaffey’s relationship with the game of golf has enabled her to use her growing influence off the course to inspire the next generation of girls to follow in her footsteps on it.
“That is one of my top three important things,” she says. “Whatever I can do to give back, I will. I did a call last week with the under-16s at Tandragee and I’ve been messaging some of the younger girls on Instagram. They’ve been asking about colleges and I told them on the chat, ‘contact me any time. Any time!’
“If one day I can look back and think I’ve inspired three girls to take up golf and they fall in love and follow their dreams and achieve what they want to achieve, that for me is so important. I want to be a good role model and giving of my time because at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be where I am without everything that Irish golf and the ILGU has done for me.”
On the surface, role models for young girls and women to aspire to have never been so plentiful in the world of women’s golf in Ireland. With Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow out competing on the LPGA Tour, Mehaffey waiting in the wings and the likes of Julie McCarthy and Lauren Walsh also racking up results on the US collegiate circuit, women’s golf is quickly catching up to the bar set by Harrington, Lowry, McIlroy et al in the male arena. However, pan out from our island and take into view the wider issue of the gender gap in sport and although strides have been made by initiatives like the 20×20 campaign in recent times, there’s still a long way to go to plug the discrepancies between the genders, an issue Mehaffey has been closely monitoring.
“I think it’s definitely improving and I feel like at home, we’re equal to the guys,” Mehaffey explains. “We get a lot of attention, they get a lot of attention and I just feel that Ireland in general is so supportive of our golfers, especially when you compare us to a lot of other countries. When you talk to some of the girls on the team here, the different challenges they have makes me think we’re ahead in a lot of ways.
“I actually wrote a paper for grad school on this and I was astonished. I looked at the gaps in professional golf between PGA and LPGA… the pay difference is a disgrace and when you read some of the comments on articles, they’re just as bad. But we’re going to get there one day, we’re just not there yet. There are a lot of people working so hard to make it improve, and it is improving, so you can’t just focus negatively on how much more the guys are getting paid. You have to focus on what initiatives are being created to bridge the gap and what sponsors are getting behind female sports. You have to be grateful at the same time and ultimately, the more campaigns and the more media attention it gets, the better.”
Through her own playing, even with limited opportunities this season, Mehaffey’s name is never too far away from the sports pages. A serial winner in amateur company, her consistency has been regularly rewarded with invitations into professional company too. Mehaffey already had four major starts under her belt ahead of this past September’s ANA Inspiration. Joining Stephanie Meadow and Leona Maguire at Rancho Mirage in her fifth main stage appearance, it was in the Californian sunshine that Mehaffey beamed, making her first ever cut at a Major championship; an accomplishment that lifted a heavy burden from her shoulders that few would’ve realised she was carrying.
“It was on the back of my mind so much… I can’t tell you how tough that was,” Mehaffey revealed. “And I told myself, ‘you’re not going to struggle on the first day, let’s get off to a good start’, and I finished terribly,” she said having been even par through 11 holes before ending the opening day outside the projected cut mark at five-over. I remember I was on the range after the round – I hit my driver terrible – and I put my sunglasses on, I’m holding back the tears hitting drivers on the range, and Davy Jones [caddie for Sung Hyun Park] – he’s from Portstewart and I’d be really good friends with him, was saying, ‘it’s OK, big picture, big picture’. He always says the same thing to me!
“He was like, ‘just do the work and come back tomorrow’ so I went home and I think I was crying, ‘I’m going to miss another cut’ and I knew my game wasn’t great. I was struggling during the practice days with a couple of things and I came back the next day with the attitude, ‘it doesn’t matter how it looks, we’re going to make the cut, just get this done’. I honestly think it was just my attitude that carried me through that day and fighting hard because my golf was not beautiful!”
But it was Mehaffey’s play that saw her through; a grinding one-under par round of 71 ensuring weekend progress. Although her scores on Saturday and Sunday reflected the struggle she described coming into the week, the belief she gathered from playing all four rounds without her best golf might just prove her most important milestone yet. It reminded me of how much stock Padraig Harrington placed on making a first cut in his Rookie season at a time when his A-game had abandoned him: “For me, it was about making my first cut, then making a few cuts, then winning after 10 weeks but funnily enough, not playing well in my first tournament but making the cut made me believe that ‘wow, I can do this and not only can I do it, but I can do better’. For Mehaffey, already that ANA experience is paying similar dividends:
“At ANA, I think I learned more than I had at the other four Majors before that,” she explains. “Playing a weekend, playing with different people in the practice round and the steps I’ve made since that tournament are the ones that I think will make me successful next year and for the next few years. I came back from ANA and didn’t touch a golf club for five days. I was a lost puppy. I remember going through my stats, I broke down everything, looked at everything and said, ‘OK, we’re going to make some changes. Some things aren’t right here.’”
Mehaffey turned to swing coach to the stars, Jorge Paradas in her bid to fix what was no longer working with long-time coach, Donal Scott, but only after agonising over the impact of such a move. Implementing the change meant ending a working relationship that had become so much more than that for Mehaffey. Her time with Donal was time she treasured, a successful spell that had somehow run its course.
“I didn’t love how I was hitting it and I remember coming to the facility at ASU and I just sat there, I couldn’t hit a ball, and they were like, ‘just do it. I can’t recommend it enough’, she recalls of a decision that ranks as the hardest she’s ever had to make. “I remember calling Dave Kearney and telling him I didn’t know what to do… I was crying my eyes out and I feel like it was the first time in my career that I had to make such a tough decision. I care so much about the people around me. I care for them as a person rather than the service they provide. They’re almost like family and it was so tough to have that conversation with Donal.”
Fortunately for Mehaffey, trusting that gut feeling with the same courage of conviction that saw her make the bold move to Arizona in the first place seems to be conjuring the same magic touch as her time spent at ASU: “Jorge is amazing,” she says. “Honestly, my game hasn’t been where I would like for probably the last year but we’ve been so productive together. I feel like we’ve changed my whole swing. We went through everything and said, ‘OK, we don’t hit enough fairways, we don’t hit enough greens. Everything else is pretty good’. But I needed something new, something fresh and I’m really excited for where everything is headed.”