FARGO — The U.S. Women’s Open weekend got off to a fabulous start for Grant and Amy Olson. On a Friday evening, the LPGA e-mailed Amy that because of her being in contention heading into Saturday and Sunday that she was eligible to have another guest watch her play. Grant, hanging out at his parent’s lake cabin after a day of deer hunting with his father Lee Olson, started looking at flights.
The stipulation by the LPGA was Amy’s guest had to have a negative COVID-19 test. As an assistant football coach at North Dakota State, Grant had already taken one with Bison athletics earlier in the week and it was negative.
By 7:30 that night, Grant bought his ticket and was on his way to the Twin Cities for a 6 a.m. flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Houston.
Once there, Grant had to take another COVID-19 test required by the LPGA with the result pending until Sunday morning.
“I can’t see Amy or talk to her or get a hug or anything until I get the result,” Grant said.
While waiting in a hotel lobby, he got a call from his mother, Betty, saying Lee had a heart attack and was on his way to the hospital.
“A half hour later she calls me and says he didn’t make it,” Grant said.
That started a series of events that put into motion the dedicated support team that has taken Amy's game on the LPGA Tour to a higher level. It’s a tight circle with her caddie, Taneka Sandiford, her swing coach Ron Stockton and Grant.
Because Grant’s test wasn’t known yet —if it was positive and he saw Amy, she would have been disqualified from the Open — he couldn’t even hug his wife after the tragic news.
“Going through that with that stipulation was really hard,” Grant said.
Grant flew back to the Twin Cities. Meanwhile, Amy and Taneka arrived at Champions Golf Club in Houston on Sunday morning to prepare for what was scheduled to be the final round. A couple of players that Amy knows well had heard the news and each gave her a hug of support.
Amy had zero rest overnight and was exhausted while trying to warm up on the driving range. Rain was prevalent. A few reporters, who also heard the news, were hanging around wanting to talk to her. Taneka ran interference and told them to leave.
“She’s taking care of all of the things that I have zero ability to handle,” Amy said.
The weather never cleared and the tournament was postponed to Monday. In retrospect, and when it came to golfing a round, it gave the Olson team another day to figure things out.
Meanwhile, Stockton texted some words of support. He flew from Palm Springs, Calif., to Dallas the week prior to fine-tune her swing. A team from 2015, Stockton changed Amy’s swing to put her in position to win an LPGA major.
Monday morning started with Taneka texting a short prayer to Amy four hours before tee time. There wasn’t much talking between the two because both knew what had to be done. Again, a few reporters were at the course wanting to talk to Amy before the round.
Sandiford put the kibosh on that.
“Let her focus on golf,” she said. “For me, my job was to get her through 18 holes. I don’t care if it’s good or bad, my job was to make sure she completed 18 holes. And we both held it together.”
The connection between golfer and caddie is just as much non-verbal as verbal. Amy said Taneka has a sixth sense to where she knows when to talk and when not to. On this Monday of the U.S. Women’s Open, both stuck to business.
Olson had three early bogeys but rebounded with birdies on the next two holes. A Lim Kim and a hot putter won the tournament by one shot over Olson and Jin Young Ko. Amy finished the 18th with a birdie.
“It was like, all right, we made it through 18 holes,” Sandiford said. “I gave her a hug and a little prayer and in that hug I had to make her feel Grant, God and her parents. I had to make her feel everyone in that one hug. It was a little emotional on the golf course.”
The emotions, and the day, were not done. With Sandiford by her side, Amy agreed to a couple of post-round interviews. She broke down on national TV in one of them talking about Lee.
Taneka, just out of camera view but right in front of Amy, was there helping her through it.
“She just ran interference, kind of limited who could talk to me,” Amy said. “She made sure I had the time and space that I needed. She was the one monitoring where I was at, what frame of mind I was in and what was going to be the most beneficial for me.”
The job of caddie after 18 holes was never more important. Sandiford, worried about Amy being alone, offered to fly back to Minneapolis with her. But Amy insisted some alone time was what she needed.
This week, Olson begins her eighth year on the LPGA Tour at the Gainbridge LPGA in Orlando, Fla. Like she has for the last five years, Sandiford will be there to do more than carry a bag, read a green, judge the wind and give advice on yardage.
“A lot of people have the hard skills to be a caddie,” Amy said. “What a lot of people don’t have is that emotional intelligence of when do you say something and probably more important when do you not say something. She just knows. She knows if I need to blow off some steam or if I need a word of encouragement and she needs to speak up. She just knows that.”
Taneka Sandiford: My dream job
The two met in 2016 at the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic. Olson was going with local caddies at the time, meaning it was up to the tournament to find somebody to carry her bag. Sandiford, a native of the Bahamas, was back in town and received a call to be paired with Olson.
“I had struggles finding a good tour caddie that I connected with,” Olson said, “so I decided to do locals to take that stress off myself.”
Sandiford met Olson on the driving range on Monday before the tournament started. They connected from the get-go.
“I loved how she went about her business,” Olson said. “I loved her big smile, her positivity and she did whatever I asked of her.”
Olson played the next six tournaments with other local caddies. It didn’t go near as well as the week with Sandiford. Later that year, in May, Olson was playing in the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout in Dallas.
One state away, Sandiford was coaching golf at Redlands Community College in El Reno, Okla. So Olson texted her to see if she would be interested in driving to Dallas and caddying for her. It wasn’t long before that local caddie from the Bahamas became a permanent LPGA Tour caddie.
“The job is amazing,” she said. “I love traveling and what kept me in golf was to be able to travel. Now I’m getting paid to travel around the world, you can’t beat it. This is a dream job that I never dreamed about, but for sure the coolest one.
“It’s completely a team thing. I can’t be there without her and she can’t be there without me. When she plays well, I play well. When she wins a tournament, she’ll go home with the trophy but mentally I’ll be like that’s our trophy. We both did that.”
Sandiford doesn’t mess with Amy’s swing on the course unless she asks her to look at something. That usually only happens on the driving range.
“She has a great swing coach and she has to mentally understand it, she has to feel it so she knows exactly what she’s doing right or what she’s doing wrong,” Sandiford said. “Ron is great. If she needs Ron, she’ll do a video and he’s always there.”
The Sandiford-Olson team plans on remaining a pair for the foreseeable future. They both say they’re on about the same career path and at some point, both will move on from the LPGA.
The plan for Sandiford, 26 years old, is to return to the Bahamas some day and run a preschool.
“I wouldn’t be surprised when I retire, she retires,” Amy said. “I have a feeling our professional careers will track each other.”
Sandiford is going about traveling the world and doing her dream job while dealing with multiple sclerosis. She was diagnosed in 2018 after suffering a seizure while out for a jog in Nassau, Bahamas.
It’s rare for a Black woman who grew up in a warm-weather climate like the Bahamas to get MS.
“That’s unheard of,” Amy said. “It was extremely shocking in many regards and she’s so healthy that’s the last thing on your mind.”
When the diagnosis hit, the Amy Olson support system was 180 degrees from the U.S. Women’s Open. It was Amy who was there for her friend and caddie.
“She’s been rock solid from the day she got her diagnosis to today,” Amy said. “She will not live in fear. Her trust is 100 percent in God knowing he has a plan. She’s so confident in that and that’s inspiring to see. It’s easy to talk about when things are good but to talk about that when truly your future is unknown — it’s genuine.”
Ron Stockton: Swing change is hard
Around the same time of Sandiford coming aboard, Amy was in the midst of a major swing change. She missed 11 cuts in her rookie season of 2014 and seven cuts in 2015. There were a couple of high finishes but generally she ended 72 holes from 40th to 80th place.
It was enough to remain in the top 100 of the money list to retain her tour card. But her game was not in a place to consistently finish high. The problem: her ball flight was too low, which made it tough to hold approach shots on the faster, harder LPGA Tour greens.
She got away with it in college at North Dakota State, where she won an NCAA-record 20 tournaments, because the courses were shorter. On the LPGA Tour, those wedge shots were suddenly 5 and 6 irons.
Olson connected with Stockton through LPGA player Morgan Pressel. Looking to improve her short game, and noticing that Pressel’s short game was one of the best on tour, Olson asked Pressel who she worked with. It was Stockton, the son of former PGA player Dave Stockton.
Stockton overhauled Pressel's swing beginning in 2009, a process according to the Golf Channel that took several years.
“I really loved the simplicity with which he taught,” Amy said. “It’s not super complex and I’ve always gravitated toward complex because it seems smarter. The best players and the best teachers make things really simple so I found that refreshing.”
Success certainly didn’t come overnight.
The low point was at the LOTTE Championship in Hawaii. Olson shot 79-71 and missed the cut for the fifth straight tournament. Moreover, that stretch included an 80, a 77 and a 76.
“I was hitting it all over the place,” Olson said.
“He cleared his calendar, we got up there and we worked morning until evening,” Amy said. “You know if something is going to work or not in a couple of days and I knew we were on the right track but I didn’t know how long it would take. Literally, I’m ready to rebuild my swing. This is not a minor tweak, I’m ready to do the work.”
Stockton said he’s not a huge fan of making major changes to a tour player, but made an exception with Amy. Mainly, he changed the plane of her backswing, which in turn changed the way her body maneuvered through the swing.
“She worked so hard,” Stockton said. “Honestly, with all the different players I’ve worked with, I have rarely seen the amount of effort Amy put into making real change. It’s her swing now. I’m not sure she could even do what she used to do.”
Grant, in his second season as the Bison linebackers coach, can appreciate good teaching. It’s his job.
“(Stockton’s) got a personality to coach anybody in the world,” Grant said. “He’ll give you one thing to work on and maybe that one thing will fix five or six problems you have in your swing. He’s a fun guy to be around. He’s laid back but competitive, tough and handles everything with a lot of grace and poise, which fits in perfect with Amy because that’s her to a ‘T.’ ”
It wasn’t until 2018 before the swing change started to resonate in results. She finished 2016 missing seven of the last 10 cuts.
The criticisms, for the first time in her golfing life, came her way.
“So that gave me a bit of a hardened exterior and even interior that you have to have to be successful,” she said. “I had no doubt I was on the right track but people see you struggle and wonder what’s going on. I didn’t care what people thought anymore. I did when I was in college, I did when everybody was singing my praises. After you get some criticism and you know you’re doing the right thing, you stop caring what people think.”
She missed five cuts in her first 10 tournaments in 2017 and finished in a tie for 55nd or higher in eight other tourneys.
A tie for ninth in the LPGA major ANA Inspiration in March of 2018 may have started the road to consistency, at least on the statistical sheet. It came one tournament after an 11th place finish in the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. Later that year, she finished in a tie for second in the Evian Championship.
She had five top-20 finishes in 2019. That consistency that she was “craving” finally was coming to fruition.
The star witnesses were Sandiford, Stockton and Grant.
“The LPGA is unique compared to the PGA,” Grant said. “In the PGA, a lot of these guys are flying private jets with their wives or girlfriends on tour. The LPGA is not that way. Myself and maybe a few boyfriends or husbands fly in to visit. Taneka is her entourage. Taneka is an incredible rock. She’s very mentally tough and, good or bad, she stays in the moment. Amy has the same skill set as well and they play off each other extremely well.”