CHARLOTTE – His name means “Thunderbear,” and his golf game rises with the sudden ferocity of a storm. Perhaps the most mercurial young rising star of the European Tour, the lanky Danish player born Jakob Olesen, but who pays professionally under his middle name, “Thorbjorn,” shares the lead in the 99th PGA Championship with the USA’s Kevin Kisner at 4-under 67.
It’s feast or famine for the 27-year-old Dane, whose fearsome name is somewhat belied by his slender frame – he weighs a scant 152 pounds.
After turning pro in 2008 at the wizened age of 18, he earned his European Tour card in 2011, then won the Sicilian Open the very next season at an excellent Kyle Phillips golf course called Verdura. Olesen fired four rounds in the 60s to do it.
Of course all the best players were at Verdura. When Rocco Forte throws a party, you go.
Olesen also finished runner-up in the Alfred Dunhill that season, one of the premier gems in the European Tour diadem, losing by two shots to his good friend Brendan Grace at the Old Course at St. Andrews. He missed only five cuts out of 28 starts and finished 15th in the Race to Dubai. And he finished a perfectly respectable T-9 at the Open Championship that year at Royal Lytham.
Since then, his career has been a roller coaster of rollicking highs and fearful lows. He finished T-6 at the 2013 Masters – a performance that could have been a springboard - but a car accident forced him to withdraw from the Houston Open with whiplash. He returned to the European Tour a few short weeks later but had a tepid season with just four top-10 finishes. In 2014 he started with two top-five finishes, but then missed four cuts in a row and finished in the lower nether-reaches of the leaderboard at the Open Championship (T-64). Likewise in 2015 he missed 15 out of 26 cuts and had just three top-10s, but then he went out and won the Alfred Dunhill seemingly out of nowhere, edging this year’s U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka by two strokes.
Olesen’s round yesterday was a microcosm of his career. He balanced six birdies against two bogeys (both on par 3s, Nos. 6 and 17). He took great advantage of the shorter, swing holes, carding birdies at 7, 8, 14, and 15 (four of the five easiest holes on the golf course). He also rolled in long bombs on Nos. 2 and 18. Amazingly, Olesen had no problem with the much ballyhooed Bermuda rough. He missed seven of 14 fairways, but still hit 12 greens in regulation. Part of the reason was his gargantuan driving distance; he averaged 316 yards off the tee (7th in the field), which left him shorter irons for his approaches.
“Coming in with some short irons into these greens was definitely the key to the round,” Olesen explained. “I felt like I gave myself a lot of opportunities, and obviously it was a very, very nice way to finish with that long putt on 18.”
The other reason for his surge to the top of the leaderboard was his short game. His 26 putts (fourth best on the field) was solid enough on Quail’s slick, curvaceous greens, and this translated into 3.71 strokes gained on the field putting, en route to his lowest opening round in any of the 14 major championships he’s played. He made two crucial sand saves as well.
Olesen has also been hot of late - he had a back-door top-10 last week at the WGC-Bridgestone after firing a scalding 67-65 on the weekend. Yesterday’s round makes three straight competition rounds of 67 or less.
“I've had a couple of top-10s in majors. I've had some good rounds in majors, and I feel like I've learned a lot over the years playing quite a few majors now,” he surmised thoughtfully. “I feel like I'm better prepared to be in contention over the weekend and have a chance to win.”
While he’s been running under the radar in America, Olesen has been ready for a breakout performance similar to Brooks Koepka’s. Thunderbear roars his loudest in the game’s biggest tournaments, Koepka hitting 316 yard drives? We understand that – he’s built like a Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker and an American Gladiator had a lovechild. Olesen on the other hand has a body frame more like Thundergopher, but he generates remarkable torque with a combination of hip turn and wrist cock rather than brute muscle. And with the touch of a Chelsea hairdresser around the greens, he’s got the talent to close out tournaments.
“The key right now to my rounds is just getting that driver going,” Olesen concluded. “And then I feel like I'm in a good position with the rest of my game.”