College / Men

Aksel Olsen discovers massive improvement in second, and final, year at South Florida

South Florida's Aksel Olsen earned his second win of the spring Tuesday at the American Athletic Conference Championship.
South Florida's Aksel Olsen earned his second win of the spring Tuesday at the American Athletic Conference Championship. (American Athletic Conference/Ben Solomon)

LECANTO, Fla. – Axsel Olsen needed some time to find his groove at South Florida. But now that he’s captured it, he’s one of the most dangerous players in the country.

The Bulls senior fired a final-round 69 on Tuesday at the American Athletic Conference Championship, and the score proved good enough to earn him a one-shot victory. The win was Olsen’s second in his last five starts and his ninth top-20 finish in 10 events for the team in 2015-16.

Pretty stellar stuff from a guy who transferred from Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala. prior to the 2014-15 season and only earned four starts (and one top 20) in his opening campaign with the Bulls.

“I have to admit, I’ve surprised myself a little bit this year,” Olsen said.

Year Two Aksel, apparently, is a whole new man.

“Last year he walked in and didn’t know if he was going to start,” said Rigel Fernandes, a South Florida junior and Olsen’s teammate. “This year he walked in and said he’s going to start.”

And indeed he’s done that, and more. Thanks to his nine top-20s, Olsen boasts the second-lowest scoring average (only trailing roommate Chase Koepka) on a team ranked 13th in the nation. After ending the 2014-15 season as Golfweek‘s No. 628, Olsen’s now all the way up to No. 32.

That’s a remarkable jump in a single year, and its origins lay in a number of factors.

First off, is the work ethic.

Olsen earned an NJCAA individual national title in his first of two years at Wallace State, but when he arrived on the Division I level, a range rat didn’t emerge.

In fact, Steve Bradley, South Florida’s men’s head coach, felt the weakest part of Olsen’s game was his work ethic.

“I think he knew that if he wanted to possibly chase this professionally after school, he needed to change some things up after last year,” Bradley said. “At the end of last spring, we had a conversation and I told him that he’s clearly got the talent, but in order to contribute, you need to change a couple things.”

Olsen took Bradley’s frank assessment to heart, playing constantly ahead of the upcoming season until something clicked in his game. He had emerged a harder worker with a greater dedication to fitness, which afforded him more consistency and less unnecessary movement in his swing.

The second defining alteration: a change in circumstance.

Olsen, who grew up in Norway, had heard about college golf in the United States from friends Eirik Tage Johansen and Espen Kofstad, who raved about their experiences at South Carolina and Denver, respectively.

Olsen planned to follow Kofstad to Denver but realized he wanted a warmer, year-round climate to golf, which led him to Wallace State. He had set his eyes from the start, though, on eventually getting on at South Florida. Olsen built his resume at the two-year school and was recruited to the Bulls by then-head coach Chris Malloy (now head coach at Mississippi), then-assistant head coach Jacob Amos (now assistant head coach at Purdue) and at one point earlier on by previous assistant Brennan Webb (now head coach at Middle Tennessee State). The Norwegian gained a spot on the squad for the 2014-15 season.

But even before he could start at South Florida, fate started working against him.

Malloy left for Ole Miss and Amos went to Purdue before the 2014-15 season. That meant a whole new coaching staff in place that hadn’t recruited Olsen to the Bulls.

Compounding that fact was that Olsen suffered an untimely ailment before coming to South Florida. A pinched nerve in the Norwegian’s lower back forced him to rest and stay out of golfing action for the two months prior to his arrival with the Bulls.

That plan put him back to 100 percent by the time he started up in the fall, but he was also hitting his first golf shot in months at the team’s opening qualifier.

“I hadn’t gotten a lot of practice, and I’m already playing against guys who are really good,” Olsen said. “They’re hitting it well while I’m out there stiff and not feeling it. And I didn’t really play well from there.”

Indeed, Olsen played three fall events but didn’t do much in his starts, posting a T45-T36-T51 slate. He was already behind the 8-ball.

A sluggish start coming back in the spring sealed him to the bench for almost the whole second half of the season.

“He came back from Christmas break in Norway, where it was cold and he didn’t play a whole lot, and the other guys on the team did get a chance to play a lot over that month,” Bradley said. “And he got off to a rough start in February with qualifying and he just never really got back into the lineup.”

This year, though, he entered the season with no injury forcing rest and thus no spiral that could drop him off the lineup entirely.

But more diligence and better circumstance don’t quite explain away a near-600 spot jump in the rankings.

There needs to be something else…a third point of improvement that’s the important of them all. That factor? Confidence.

The simplest enabler in golf, but also sometimes the hardest to obtain. Even though Olsen had strived to reach South Florida, regardless of injury, he wasn’t fully prepared when he got there.

“You come over from Norway and he was pretty good at junior college, and then all of a sudden, you come to a big school and I think he was a little lost and their were adjustment issues,” Bradley said. “I just think now he’s more comfortable with who he is.”

In his first year at South Florida, Olsen’s approach to the game became highly conservative. His focus turned to where not to hit the ball rather than figuring out where he wanted the ball to actually go.

He also hadn’t managed how to handle his game under Division I pressure. But that puzzle was solved over the summer.

“For me it’s about keeping a good tempo because I can tend to get quick and then the ball goes left,” Olsen said. “Bradley has worked with me on it, once he sees (me getting quick), he tells me to calm down, take a deep breath and that I’m all right.”

The increased confidence has come with time and also as a product of Olsen’s upped commitment. And he’ll be looking to finish his college career on the right note.

The senior only has at most two events left before his time ends at South Florida and he’s in a good spot. Not only is there his 2015-16 record and the recent wins but he’s healthy again. Olsen missed the Mission Inn Spring Spectacular in the middle of March because of knots underneath his right shoulder blade. The area stiffened up so much that Olsen could barely walk, let alone swing.

The injury lingered for about a week-and-a-half, but treatment allowed him to be cleared days before the next event, the Valspar Invitational.

Olsen will test his game in the pro ranks after the season is over. The Norwegian said he planned to head back home to compete in the Nordic Golf League, a tour where the top-five finishers in the rankings earn a spot on the Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent to the Web.com Tour).

First, Olsen will be counted on as one of the lead members to return the Bulls to the NCAA Championship, where the team lost in the quarterfinals to Georgia last year.

Once his pupil joins the pro ranks after the season, though, Bradley believes that Aksel 2.0 has the mindset that Aksel 1.0 didn’t possess to perform on the Scandinavian circuit and beyond.

“A lot of guys are afraid of success, as strange as that sounds. They don’t want to give everything they have and fail,” Bradley said. “Aksel’s given everything he has, and whether or not he has success at the next level, it’s not because he didn’t try.”

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