Despite On Course Success, Olarra Follows Her Own Path Away From Golf
Ainhoa Olarra couldn’t believe her eyes. It was her first time in the United States and everything was so much bigger than in Spain. The buildings in Atlanta. The wide-open expanses of rural Georgia and South Carolina. The food portions at the rest stops along the busy interstates. As she and her mom drove to the University of South Carolina for her official visit, she didn’t know what to expect.
“I left home at the age of 16 to move to Madrid for my final two years of high school,” says Ainhoa, a native of San Sebastian, Spain. “And I’d traveled Europe extensively for a few years before that to play golf tournaments with the Spanish Federation, so I was no stranger to being away from home. But the U.S. was different.”
Ainhoa started playing at the age of seven after she took up the game together with her parents and older brother. It quickly became a cherished family activity for them to enjoy every Sunday. They joined a club, Basozabal, featuring a course designed by two-time Masters champion and San Sebastian native, Jose Maria Olazabal. From there, Ainhoa’s love – and talent – for the game only grew.
While it wasn’t always her goal to attend college in the U.S., she was sure of two things: she wanted a degree, and she wanted to play a high level of golf. With its strong golf program and business school, South Carolina was an enticing option. Plus, it was only a six-hour time difference from her family and friends in Spain. That was big to Ainhoa, as she knew she didn’t want to deal with the eight- or nine-hour difference her friend and fellow Spaniard John Rahm was dealing with at Arizona State. But it wasn’t until Ainhoa stepped foot in Columbia that she knew she was meant to be a Gamecock.
“Coach [Kalen] Anderson had really shown she wanted me on her team. One time, she came all the way to Spain to watch me play in a tournament even though we could only wave to each other from across the fairway due to NCAA rules. That said so much.”
Although there were other universities in the running for her signature, Ainhoa loved the family atmosphere and how much help and support she would get from coaches and athletic advisers. Choosing where she’d spend the next four years, however, was in many ways the easy part.
“My freshman and first half of my sophomore year were tough on and off the course. I’d frequently sit in classes and have a tough time understanding the professor because my English still needed work. I also wasn’t playing very well, as I was making some big swing changes. And I was so far away from home. It was a lot to deal with.
“But the coaches kept saying to ‘trust the process.’ And you know what? They were right.”
It took a year and half for her to settle into her new surroundings, but once she did, Coach Anderson began to see the player she recruited out of San Sebastian. With an improved swing and greater comfort with English, a much more confident Ainhoa was off and running.
“My favorite memories from college are so hard to pick; there’s a laugh or a joke from every tournament. We also won NCAA Regionals as a team, and I beat Maria Fassi in a playoff for the SEC individual championship my senior year, which was so cool as she’s such a great person and player. Having my parents come in for graduation was amazing, too, as they’d sacrificed so much for it to happen.”
Despite her great on-course success, Ainhoa was about to make yet another huge decision, one that would dictate her future professional path.
“There wasn’t any one moment when I knew I didn’t want to turn pro. I really couldn’t imagine doing the amount of travel needed to make it on the LPGA Tour. I left home at 16 and had already missed so much time with family and friends. Golf had given me so much, but I knew deep down I wouldn’t be happy living out of a suitcase.
“I was incredibly nervous to tell Coach Anderson what I’d decided, but she took it so well. It was such a relief to have her approval and to also get the decision off my chest.”
Ainhoa studied management and economics at South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business and went through the interview process just like any other graduate. She first connected with Deloitte before her 2018 graduation, always with an eye on returning to Spain where she’s now an auditor at the accounting firm’s Madrid office.
Although she’s doesn’t play very much now, she still applies much of what she learned through golf to her everyday work.
“Golf gave me the attitude to do whatever I need to do to make something happen. I also use breathing drills I learned from golf to help me during stressful moments. I miss the competition and camaraderie that golf brought, but I’ve been able to channel it in other ways.”
South Carolina was a frequent participant in the ANNIKA Intercollegiate during her playing years, so Ainhoa had the opportunity to interact with Annika multiple times.
“She’s always carried herself with humility and passion – it’s a tough balance to strike, but she does it. And even if I’d seen her do her clinic the previous year, there were always new things to learn.”
And if Ainhoa’s ever in Annika’s shoes, standing before an audience of eager young golfers who’re hanging on her every word, what would she tell them?
“I’d tell them to enjoy the ride! Golf gives you so many opportunities to learn about yourself and apply to other parts of your life. There’s no other game like it.”
Despite her impressive golf resume, with perspective like that, Ainhoa’s on track to top that success no matter where her business career takes her.