As many know, the late, great Arnold Palmer was not only a seven-time major champion and sports legend, but also a licensed pilot. He famously said that, next to marrying his wife, Winnie, and deciding to pursue a career in professional golf, the smartest decision he ever made was learning how to fly. From the late 1950s until his passing in 2016, he logged more than 18,000 flight-time hours zipping around the world in a variety of aircraft.
What you may not know is that right about the time Mr. Palmer’s days in the cockpit were winding down, an All-SEC golfer, Abbey Carlson, was falling in love with not just golf, but aeronautics as well.
“My dad played only recreationally and my mom has never touched a club, so I’m really not sure why I was so taken by the game at an early age – but I was,” says the 2020 graduate of Vanderbilt University.
Born south of Chicago, Abbey played soccer and swam as a kid. But when she started participating in local park district golf events as a seven-year-old, she loved it right off the bat.
“I remember playing in my first tournament when I was seven. It was an Illinois Junior Golf Association event and I shot 81 for nine holes. But then I came back the following year and on the same course shot a 41.”
With that impressive improvement under her belt, Abby was off and running. Her first instructor was Alexis Mihelich, who was the women’s golf coach at Southern Illinois University when they began working together.
“Alexis was more than a coach who made the game fun – she was like a big sister to me. We still stay in touch to this day.”
An excellent student and mature beyond her years, Abbey quickly set her sights on playing college golf.
“When I was eight, I was already getting stressed out about where I was going to go to college,” she says with a laugh. “My parents still playfully poke fun at me for that.”
Importantly, Abbey’s parents appreciated the potential and passion she showed for the game, leading them to make the fateful decision to move to Lake Mary, Florida when she was 11. Taking full advantage of the opportunity to now play and practice year-round, Abbey began working with Cheryl Anderson at the Mike Bender Golf Academy. She played in her first AJGA event when she was 12.
One of her favorite AJGA events was the ANNIKA Invitational USA presented by Rolex. She played in it multiple times as a junior.
“Annika was pretty much the person I wanted to be when I grew up – in fact, in third grade, I did an entire school project on Annika and her life. I also loved the ‘More Than Golf’ aspect of her events – the clinics with Annika, the gala dinners and social events. It was a much more well-rounded experience than other tournaments. And although I had some up and down results, finishing T-5 my senior year of high school was a definite highlight.”
While her on-course play was beginning to garner recognition from a who’s who of college coaches, off the course Abbey was increasingly drawn to her other passion – aeronautics.
“I always loved math and science, and while originally drawn towards architecture I fell in love with aerospace during my junior year of high school. My school, Circle Christian, had a unique program where we had the opportunity to build a Van’s RV-12 airplane. Once the plane was certified I then had the opportunity to complete my first 19 hours of flight instruction in that plane before officially getting my license in August 2016. It’s safe to say it’s the most life-changing thing I’ve ever experienced. A cool fact was that it was the weekend after my final ANNIKA Invitational event that I completed my first solo flight.
With golf and academics her priorities, Abbey set about making her college selection. She recalls pulling out a map of the U.S. and drawing a big box on it to capture her thinking that she’d go no further west than Texas and no further north than Tennessee. With those parameters in place, Vanderbilt quickly became the obvious choice.
Upon arriving in Nashville, Abbey quickly adapted to balancing golf with her academic workload.
She was the first engineer to play on the Vandy team in a number of years. Despite that, the coaches were “awesome” about her study time and need to attend labs to fulfill the requirements of her mechanical engineering program.
Abbey also excelled on the course, playing in every event for which she was eligible during her four-year career.
“I have too many great memories from playing golf at Vanderbilt; any list would go on and on. But if forced to choose, I’d say it was our team winning NCAA Regionals my junior year. After a few rebuilding years for our program this was a huge win that brought us back on the national stage in college golf.”
Since she started playing as a seven-year-old in the suburbs of Chicago, Abbey had dreamed about playing professional golf, saying she’d “never really thought about doing anything else.” But after her sophomore year, she began to re-think that path. Part of her reconsideration was based on a nagging wrist injury that occurred at the end of her freshman season. But there was more to it than that.
The summer before her junior year, Abbey earned an internship with an air and space company in Nashville called TECT Aerospace. With it, her eyes were opened to how much she enjoyed the more balanced life a 9-to-5 job could afford. The constant grind of the LPGA Tour just wouldn’t make her happy. At the same time, she also realized that choosing this professional path didn’t mean she couldn’t still enjoy golf in her spare time.
With this new peace of mind, Abbey played the best golf of her career as a junior, leading the team to the aforementioned NCAA Regionals victory on the way to being named First Team All-SEC and to the ANNIKA Award watch list.
After her excellent junior season, Abbey interned with Boeing’s Defense and Space Division in Huntsville, Alabama. She performed so well that she earned a full-time offer to join the same team after graduation. With her professional path now settled, she was set to enjoy a stellar senior season culminating in a run at an NCAA Championship. But COVID-19 changed those plans.
“The season ending the way it did took me a lot of time to process. It was hard to accept that I’d played in my last college event without the normal celebration and closure with my teammates. But I slowly came around to a point of view where I wasn’t going to let the unexpected ending ruin the memories I had of the incredible three-and-a-half years that preceded it.”
Since graduating, Abbey has moved to Huntsville and, due to COVID-19 restrictions, is working remotely with her Design and Analysis team on rockets that will take payloads into Earth’s orbit and beyond.
“My current role at Boeing is working as a stress analyst for secondary structures on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Secondary structures include a variety of parts including things such as the brackets, wiring, and tubing necessary to support various systems throughout the rocket. My job is look at the expected loads that each part will endure throughout flight and then simulate and calculate the stresses that the part will experience to determine if the design is suitable for flight.”
Her career journey now set, Abbey took some time during quarantine to reflect on where she’d been and where she was going. As for what she’d tell her younger self, it would be to “Take in every moment because you’re about to go on a wild ride and will have experiences most 22-year-olds can only dream of,” and relatedly, “One bad round isn’t a big deal; shake it off and see the bigger picture.”
While Abbey isn’t playing much golf at the moment, she’s planning to start up again very soon, as she has an eye on performing her best in next spring’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur. She also looks forward to trying to qualify for future U.S. Women’s Amateurs and Mid-Amateurs.
“Golf could never be totally removed from my life.”
With her love of the game and budding career with Boeing, Abbey has the rare opportunity to shoot for the stars both literally and figuratively as she embarks on the next chapter of her personal and professional journey!