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Olafia Kristinsdottir: 'I want to be the Federer of women's golf'

With imprecision punished by a ball landing in the lava fields, Icelandic golfers have an extra incentive to...

Posted: Sep. 12, 2018 9:35 AM
Updated: Sep. 12, 2018 9:35 AM

With imprecision punished by a ball landing in the lava fields, Icelandic golfers have an extra incentive to make the fairways. Some courses lie inside old volcanoes and require players to battle howling winds as they hit shots over expanses of ocean. The golf season only lasts from May to September, before the elements take hold and the sensible take shelter indoors. It couldn't be further from the azaleas of Augusta National. And yet, for all the obstacles, golf in the land of fire and ice is thriving.

Just ask Ólafía Kristinsdóttir, the country's first ever professional golfer. "Icelanders, I think we are kind of cool in that we believe anything is possible," she tells CNN Sport. Kristinsdóttir only joined the elite LPGA Tour in 2017 but has such strong self-belief that she says she wants to be the "Roger Federer of women's golf." But her rise through the ranks — capped with a hole in one at this year's ANA Inspiration — is symptomatic of a wider trend.

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As the country's footballers continue to punch above their weight, her success could be just the tip of the iceberg. Haraldur Magnus, 27, belied a world ranking of 1,052 to qualify for July's Open Championship at Carnoustie, becoming the first Icelandic man to compete in a major, while Valdis Thora Jonsdottir, 28, has enjoyed victories on the Challenge Tour and now plies her trade on the Ladies' European Tour where she finished third at this year's Australian Ladies Classic in Bonville.

'Golf crazy'

Haukur örn Birgisson, whose name literally translates as "Hawk Eagle son of Birgir," is the president of the Golf Union of Iceland. "I'm told I have literally the coolest golfing name ever," he says. "You can call me Hawk." Birgisson joined the union around the turn of the millennium for a summer job during law school and has been there ever since. In that time, the number of registered players in Iceland has more doubled. "The situation has changed dramatically in the past 15 years," he tells CNN Sport. "It's a small country. We have a total population of a little over 300,000, but we now have around 17,000 registered members. So that's a lot." It's now the second largest sport in Iceland, with over 10% of the population (some 40,000) playing on a regular basis — at least five to six times per summer — according to surveys conducted by the Union. None more so than Kristinsdóttir, who earned $219,134 during her rookie year on the LPGA Tour.

She first picked up a club when she was 10 years old, playing on the handful of courses dotted in and around the capital of Reykjavik. There are only about 65 scattered across the country, which might not sound like a lot, but Iceland is said to have more courses per capita than any other nation on the planet. "I think it's fair to say, per capita we are golf crazy," says Birgisson, attributing the sport's growth to the number of courses open to the pubic. "You can play wherever you want and it's relatively cheap, with green fees from around 20 to 60 euros ($23-$69). And everyone plays. It's not an upper class or upper-middle class sport here. Everyone plays."

Big leagues

When Kristinsdóttir earned a sport scholarship at Wake Forest college in North Carolina, a professional career in golf was still little more than a pipe dream. It was uncharted territory, after all. The closest anyone from her homeland had come to the upper echelons of the game was college golfer Olafur Loftsson's appearance at the 2011 Wyndham Championship on a sponsor's exemption. "I was a good golfer but I was no prodigy when I was a kid," Kristinsdóttir admits. "When I went to college I improved a lot and that's when I kind of saw, 'Ah, I have a chance.' Then the dream was more realistic, so I just gave it a try. And it was the best thing I ever did."

The 25-year-old hasn't looked back, becoming a member of the Ladies European Tour at her first attempt before quickly making the step to the LPGA Tour. While a first tournament victory still eludes her, a recent fourth-place finish at the Indy Women in Tech Championship where she chipped in for eagle at 18 proved she could rub shoulders with the best. It was "weird" to suddenly be playing alongside the figures she knew from television, particularly Michelle Wie, but Kristinsdóttir quickly appreciated there was no secret to their success. "The biggest thing for me was that I was imagining how they'd play to be something extraordinary," she says. "Actually they play very simple, good golf. Hit the fairway, hit the green, one or two putts. There was no magic. So I just tried to simplify my game too: to have a solid technique and be good under pressure."

It's not all been plain sailing; some "scary" double jaw surgery in December 2016 kept her in bed and out of action for six weeks. By the end of 2017, Kristinsdóttir had made 15 cuts in 26 starts and finished No. 74 on the LPGA's official money list — no mean feat for someone used to only five hours of daylight in winter. "I educated myself a lot," she says, adding she wouldn't have gone to qualifying school if she didn't think there was a chance she "could actually do this." "I read a lot of books on the mental side of the game and know myself a lot better now. I know what works for me and what doesn't work for me. I think I'm also just better at practicing; I have more quality practice. Back in the day I didn't really know what I was doing, so now I know."

Small world

It speaks volumes for Iceland's size and wherewithal that Kristinsdóttir's first mental coach was Sigurður Ragnar Eyjólfsson, then the manager of the women's national football team. Remarkably, the golfer also spent two years working with Olafur Sigurðsson, the older brother of English Premier League footballer Gylfi Sigurðsson. Olafur was a competent golfer himself and once finished fourth at the European Amateur Championship. It's the people you surround yourself with that give you that "extra 1% here, 1% there," she contends. And in the end it was Kristinsdóttir, not Gylfi Sigurðsson, the star of the country's historic journey to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals, who was named Icelandic Sportsperson of the Year in 2017.

Kristinsdóttir, the first golfer to receive the honor, unsurprisingly continues to take "great inspiration" from the exploits of the football team. Birgisson, meanwhile, believes the underdog mentality channeled by the country's footballers can be translated into the world of Icelandic golf. "It doesn't matter what sport — as long as you have athletes that come through and prove themselves on the big stage, that will always affect other people coming up," says Birgisson. "The success will have an impact on how Icelandic golfers play in the future, handball players, basketball players, whatever. It just goes to show you that it's possible. And once you achieve that, it will always be easier for the next person in line to achieve great things."

That next person could be making their way to an Icelandic golf club right now. Indeed, one statistic Birgisson is "particularly proud of" during his tenure is the increase of female participation, from 10% to a third of the overall membership."That's something we've been putting focus on for the past 15 years and we've been successful in doing so," he says. "In the UK it's about 12% ... our aim is 50/50." Kristinsdóttir relishes the idea she's inspiring others to take up the game. "My coaches always say there has never been so many small girls starting golf," she says. "Kids' programs are growing so that's really cool because golf is now getting attention in Iceland."

But, fiercely determined behind her light-hearted smile, Iceland's first professional golfer doesn't just want to be remembered for paving the way for those who follow. With Tokyo 2020 on the horizon she's also not ruling out one day becoming her country's first ever Olympic champion ... in any sport. Birgisson certainly thinks there's "no reason to doubt she can go all the way," but where does Kristinsdóttir see herself in five year's time? "I am hopefully on my path to becoming the Roger Federer of female golf!"

As she puts it: "Even if we're small, why not us?"

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