After being featured in our April 2014 issue, Lauren Olaya has been busy. She’s currently co-host of Fox Sport’s SwingClinic along with Jimmy Hanlin and is designing her own women’s golf clothing line. Story by Travis Measley
At the start of the morning, there were 12 of them, waiting in a room for their name to be called for the first skills challenge of the day. Twelve women from across the country – from Nebraska and Washington, South Carolina and Texas, Arizona, Florida and even Indiana – the oldest 28, the youngest 19. They were all excellent golfers – professional golf winners, state champions, decorated amateurs and mini tour veterans – and they were here in Fernandina Beach, Fla., at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort with their sights set on winning the Golf Channel’s reality skills competition “Big Break Florida.”
As they sat in a room together on the resort, one by one they were quietly led away, toward the golf course and the show’s first challenge. As the sun rose in the partly cloudy sky, their numbers dwindled. The players had been given no indication of what awaited them outside those doors, and none of their competitors had returned throughout the day.
Finally, only one competitor was left in the room, 25-year-old Lauren Sullivan, a native Texan from Fort Worth. Her name was called, and she made the long, daunting walk from the clubhouse to the ninth tee box on the Oak Marsh Course.
The ninth hole is a long par-5, 430-plus yards from the women’s tees, with water and marshland to the left, and a large waste area to the right. If she realized where she was going, she could have been mentally preparing for a myriad of challenges – possibly a tee shot or maybe an approach to the long, narrow green protected by bunkers and wetlands, or maybe she thought she would play the entire hole, and would have to decide if going for the green in two was worth the risk of a tragically high score and elimination on the show’s first day.
But when she arrived on the tee, Lauren was greeted with something different all together. Set up across her vision were four panes of glass, raised some four or five feet off the ground. The glass squares were marked with increasing point values from two to eight, and were in increasing distances with the higher corresponding point values. Those familiar with the Big Break reality show, now in its 20th season, would instantly recognize the setup as one of the staples of the Big Break – the glass pane challenge. Lauren had 60 seconds to break as many of the glass panes as she could in an attempt to earn the most points and avoid the elimination challenge, the culmination of each episode.
All 11 of her competitors sat off to one side, watching intently. The scoreboard was hidden from view, and she was in the dark as to how many points she needed to avoid the elimination round. As she walked up to the small pyramid of golf balls, her jaw was set firm, her face resolute. She prides herself on the ability to fight back fear and panic, to turn the butterflies in her stomach into confidence.
She took her place in the hitting area, surrounded by cameras and producers and the show staff . The ground around her was beaten to a pulp, victimized by the 11 women who attempted the challenge before her. The blast from an air horn sounded from behind her, and the 60-second clock began to tick. She took a deep breath, turned her shoulders, and let the first shot fly.
Wichita Falls Country Club is located in the southern part of the city, just south of State Highway 287, which runs from Amarillo south through the Metroplex. The country club was built in 1914, and the current clubhouse (built in 1966) stands on the same spot the original clubhouse was constructed in the 1920s. It’s a classic club with an old-time feel. In 2008, D.A. Weibring renovated the parkland-style course, and it has the same traditional style as the clubhouse.
It was at Wichita Falls CC that Lauren Olaya cut her teeth as an amateur golfer. In the mid-1990s, there wasn’t a day that would go by that she couldn’t been seen on the driving range, the short game area or the putting green, working feverishly to improve.
Golf wasn’t always Lauren’s only love, however. As kids, she and her two brothers – older brother Matthew and younger brother Michael – were extremely active in local athletics, and played most sports. When she was very young, Lauren excelled at soccer, and, according to her parents, could probably have had a successful high school and collegiate career if she had decided to continue playing.
But at age 11, she was introduced to the game of golf by the Olaya’s longtime neighbor, Rufus King. In his youth, King was a decorated amateur golfer, the winner of the Colorado State Amateur and Colorado Open Championship in the 1940s, and runner-up finisher in the 1949 U.S. Amateur at Oak Hill Country Club. He also played in the 1950 Masters and U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver.
“When our kids were young, we’d come home from soccer practice and see Mr. King out in his front yard, swinging a golf club or chipping balls around the yard,” said Lauren’s mother Joan Olaya. “It wasn’t long before he had the kids out there with him, chipping in the yard, teaching them the game.”
On Christmas Day of that year, while the Olaya family was opening presents, there was a knock at the back door. When the children rushed to see who it was, they found a golf bag and a cut-down set, courtesy of King. From then, King took all three children under his wing. First Matt, but before long Lauren was out in the yard with them, eager to prove she could play golf just like her brother, and then Michael followed suit. Most days, King would set up chipping or hitting games for the kids in the front of their house, having them pitch across both driveways, teaching them how to hit certain shots, how to hold the club properly – the simple task of playing the game. He was cut from the same cloth as men such as Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen, and he taught them more than just how to play golf.
“Without him, I don’t know if I would have developed the passion I have for golf,” Lauren said. “He taught me so much more than just how to play the game – he taught me the right way to play it, the proper respect to have for it, how golf was different from other sports because of the reverence you showed while playing.”
Under King’s tutelage, Lauren quickly became one of the best female golfers in the state. As a young teenager she was headstrong, determined and extremely confident in her abilities, which helped her win multiple local and state events. She was a perfectionist – and stubborn, she and her mother both concede with a chuckle – so there was little chance that she wasn’t going to be great once she got hooked on the game. Nothing was going to stop her from working on her game, not even, as her mother recalled, a lack of transportation.
“Every day she wanted to go to the golf course, so I’d drive her and drop her off, or stay and watch her practice, but she was so eager to get there that if I couldn’t take her right when she was ready, she’d just start off walking, carrying her golf bag on her shoulder.”
The Olayas live about a mile-and-a-half from the course, but that’s still far for a 13-year-old carrying a 35-pound golf bag.
“Yeah, I’d just walk down the street with my bag,” Lauren said with a laugh. “People would honk at me or stop and offer me a ride, but usually I’d just walk all the way there. I wanted to practice.”
On the weekends, she would spend the entire day at the club, from sun-up to sun- down. She spent so much time there that people began to joke, saying she lived in the halfway house. Golf was her addiction.
In high school, Lauren was a two-time qualifier for the state golf tournament, including a fourth-place finish as a freshman in 2005. That same year she also won the regional tournament. In 2004, she finished runner-up in the Texas-Oklahoma Junior Golf Tournament, one of the most prestigious junior events in the country.
By the time she was in her final year of high school, Lauren had coaches from major college programs calling her, and she had ample opportunities to play collegiate golf at a high level. College golf, however, had never been a part of Lauren’s plan.
Even at a young age, Lauren knew she wanted to be a doctor. While other children were watching television or sleeping in on weekends. Lauren was following her father on rounds at the hospital (when she wasn’t at the golf course). Before starting high school, she formulated a plan to graduate in three years in order to get a jump start on the lengthy graduate work, internships and residency work required of a doctoral student.
“I was really good at golf at the time and I loved it, but I never saw professional golf as much of a career,” she said. “I just knew from the start that I wanted to help people. Golf was a way to get away from every- thing, it wasn’t a career path for me. Or at least I didn’t see it as a possible at that age.”
After three years of high school, Lauren graduated and enrolled at TCU as a biology major. When she left home, she put her clubs away with no idea as to when, or if, she would ever use them again.
In 2011, Lauren and her new husband Parker Sullivan were enjoying the newlywed life in Fort Worth. A recent graduate of Texas Christian University with a degree in biology, Lauren was in the midst of preparing herself for dental school, with the goal of becoming an oral surgeon. Her father, Bernardo Olaya, is an OBGYN, and she comes from a long line of doctors on his side of the family.
“I’ve always loved science and math, even when I was a little kid,” Lauren said. “I never got any pressure from my dad or his family to be a doctor, but I always loved spending time with him at the hospital see- ing him interact with patients. It was always something I knew I wanted to do.”
She had taken a year off after graduation instead of jumping right into medical school, and, after her nuptials, started researching dental schools in the state and preparing to take the Dental Admissions Test. One day that summer she received a call from her mother-in-law, asking if Lauren would play with her in the Shady Oaks Country Club member/member tournament. When she left home for her first year in college, Lauren left her golf clubs behind to gather dust; it had been years since Lauren has picked up a golf club, let alone played a full round, especially one that mattered such as a tournament with the mother of her new husband.
For the last five years, Lauren had put golf on hiatus as she focused solely on her studies – golf had been a hobby, a way to give her mind a break from real life. Not wanting to say no and disappoint her mother-in-law, Lauren accepted the invitation, hoping that picking up a club again would be more like riding a bike and less like performing oral surgery for the first time.
Looking back, the score she shot that day was inconsequential. She recalls hitting some good shots and some not-so-good shots, and being a bit frustrated that the game didn’t come as naturally as it had when she was in junior high and high school. But after the round was finished, something started scratching in the back of her brain, the itch to get back on the course, to get her game back in shape, to be as good as she once was. While she may not have played as well as 16-year-old Lauren once did, the allure of the game came flooding back, as if it had never left. The feel of the club in her hands, the sound of the ball dropping heavily into the hole, the payback of the one perfect shot – suddenly, after five years, it was too much to ignore.
The next morning she was back at Shady Oaks, not on the course, but on the range, working on her swing with the club’s director of golf, Mike Wright. For the next few weeks, the two worked on her game. Hard. She was dedicated, spending all her free time each day at the course, working on the range, on the practice green or out on the course. But she was also still preparing herself for dental school, for four more years in the classroom and on-the-job training, and then years more working on her specialty.
One day, she was working with Wright when he addressed the elephant in the room. He asked her why she was suddenly putting so much effort into her game after years of hardly playing at all.
As simple as his question was, her response was even more so.
“I want to be good,” she said bluntly. “As good as I was in high school.”
It was an answer to a question, but not an answer to the question. The question was, why did she need to be that good again? As an amateur she was one of the best in the state, if not the country. Why, suddenly, did she feel the insatiable urge get rejuvenate her game? As a dental surgeon, she’d never have time to keep her game in check. Maybe she knew that, subconsciously, and wasn’t ready to let golf go.
To get back to that level, Wright told her, she would have to eliminate distractions. If her goal was to play competitively – maybe one day on the LPGA Tour – Lauren would have to choose: golf or school. She couldn’t do both.
The words of her swing coach rang in her ears: If you want to play competitive golf, you’ll have to choose either golf or school- you can’t do both.
She knew he was right, and as much as she desired to be a doctor – she had spent the last eight years working toward that goal, and had five or six more to go – she knew that playing golf was what truly made her happy, and she also knew that if she didn’t take the chance now, she might regret it for the rest of her life.
Coming to that realization was relatively easy; telling her parents, however, proved to be much more difficult.
“It was nerve-wracking, having to tell them basically ‘hey, I’m not going to use that degree you spent all that money on,’” she said. “I knew they would be supportive, but it was still a tough thing to talk about because it was such a big change.”
Her parents, admittedly, were surprised at Lauren’s decision, but were happy to hear she was going after her dream.
“She loves golf,” her father said. “Growing up, we knew she loved the game – some of our greatest memories are of traveling to her tournaments and watching her play. I’m so proud of her.”
With the blessing of her parents and husband, Lauren dedicated herself full time to her game. In late 2011, she played in two tournaments on the Cactus Tour as an amateur to size herself up against her competition. The experience was an eye-opener, but she felt good about the way she competed.
“I wanted to test myself to play against the girls who I had been competing against when I was playing junior golf,” she said. “Most of them had gone on to play college golf and on the mini tours,
so I wanted to gauge where I was with my game despite not playing in college or having that tour experience.”
In the spring of 2012, Lauren turned professional and began working with a new swing coach – Brian Schorsten at Colonial Country Club. Schorsten and Lauren worked diligently working on her swing and mental game, but from their first meeting he could see that she had a certain “it” factor that would help her be successful.
“She has that confidence about her,” Schorsten said. “She is driven and dedicated and has a supreme belief in her ability. She has no fear in her. It is one thing to practice hard or play in some local tournaments – but to go out there as a professional and play against the best … a lot of players don’t have that. But she does. She isn’t afraid.”
In the two years since she turned pro, Lauren has experienced a modicum of success on the Cactus Tour, including an eighth-place finish. Yet, she also had to fight through a series of injuries in early 2013. But she remained devoted, working hard on both her game and her physical strength. She is a self-proclaimed health and fitness nut, and if you watch her introduction on the “Big Break Florida,” you’ll see a few short clips of Lauren working hard in the gym.
When the announcement came about the next season of the Big Break in summer of 2013, Lauren jumped at the chance to be a part of the show. She saw it as an amazing opportunity to experience the pressure and high-level play that she needed to help with her game. She took the time to audition, was called back in for a second interview and, before she knew it, was named as one of the 12 all-female cast members on the show’s 20th season.
It was an opportunity, win or lose, that she was not going to waste.
Her first shot flew high and to the left of the four-point glass pane. The clock kept ticking. Her second shot was high as well. As was her third. The cameras zoomed in, and the seconds ticked away. Her fourth shot found its mark, exploding like a shotgun blast through the six-point pane, smashing the glass to pieces. Her final two shots missed their mark, and the horn blew again, signally the end of what she would later call the “fastest 60 seconds of her life.”
Five shots, only one glass square bro- ken, but the six points were enough to avoid the dreaded elimination challenge the first week.
Lauren would survive three more episodes before being eliminated (the episode of Lauren’s elimination aired on March 17 on the Golf Channel) in a two-hole elimination challenge.
In an interview immediately following her elimination, Lauren was visibly frustrated with her performance, but maintained that the time she spent on the show provided her with valuable experience in her quest to play as a professional.
And when evaluating what part of her game is lacking, that experience factor may be her biggest disadvantage.
“Experience, that is what she needs,” said Schorsten. “She has the game and she certainly has the mentality. She just needs to get out there and play in some tournaments, feel that pressure and get her game used to those circumstances.”
Now that her time on Big Break Florida is over, Lauren plans on honing her skills on the Cactus Tour. She is currently out in Arizona, playing the mini tour and gaining more and more experience with every round.
And soon, she is going to win. It may not be next week, it may not be next month, but it’s going to happen. And once she does win, watch out, because she might not stop. She’s just too stubborn to lose.