By Kevin Lorincz
More than 40 years after scoring a memorable hole -in- one, Agnes Olsson – one of the original charter members, and the lone surviving matriarch of the Rutgers Women’s Golf Association (RWGA) – returned to the Rutgers University Golf Course to celebrate another major milestone: her 100th birthday.
Olsson holds a special place in the history of women’s sports at Rutgers through her role making golf accessible to women at a time when not many had the opportunity. She and her friends were inspired nearly six decades ago to take up the same sport as the men in their lives.
"My friend said that if our husbands are going to play golf, then we should too,” said Olsson, who was joined by her son and two daughters at her birthday celebration. “So, we went to a clinic at Tara Greens [Golf Center] and took lessons. That’s how it started. From there, I ended up joining Rutgers Golf Course and this is where I played all my life. Every Thursday."
The RWGA was organized in 1964, 14 years before the University sponsored a varsity women’s golf program and 14 years after the first official tournament season of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Olsson, who started playing the game at age 40 in 1961, was one of seven charter members, along with Ruth Cohn, Mildred Davis, Jane Duff, Sally Hobson, Mary Nisonoff and Betty Twitchell.
The RWGA not only provided women the opportunity to compete in both league play and tournaments, it encouraged young women to pursue the sport at a time when very few high schools sponsored girls’ programs. It held its first tournament on June 10, 1965. The annual Rutgers Girls Junior Open began in 1978, with numerous participants later competing for the Scarlet Knights.
“The Rutgers golf pro at the time said that if we wanted to play, we needed to create a women’s group, so we did,” Olsson said. “I was the secretary.”
Although Olsson didn’t play any holes when she returned to celebrate her centennial birthday, she rode in the cart with her children and offered consult and encouragement throughout. All in her family play golf, and sometimes well, she pointed out. Overcast skies provided protection from the summer sun, while also offering respite from the COVID-19 pandemic penetrating the nation’s mindset.
“Do you want to know what club I used for that hole -in- one?” she responded when asked to reflect. “Well, I’m not telling you.”
Few things at the course remain since that singular stroke accomplishment in 1976. A feisty wit that accompanied Olsson through a lifetime spanning 18 U.S. presidents was still very much on display, however.
When informed that the Home News Tribune revealed the club to be a five wood in an article printed the next day, Olsson said, “I guess you can’t keep anything a secret these days.”
While much has changed for Olsson, Rutgers, and the world since her birth in 1920, her undeniable impact of kindness, loyalty and persistence have remained the same. These qualities guided Olsson as she raised a family with her late husband Frank (RC '53) in New Brunswick, steadfastly supported Rutgers Athletics, and made her mark on women’s golf at Rutgers.
“I’ve always loved it here,” said Olsson when asked why the Rutgers Golf Course was the day’s desired location. “It was a big part of my life. I built very special friendships. As a matter of fact, my friend Jan Unger is going to call me as soon as I get home. She wants to hear all about today.”
Jan Unger served as head coach of Rutgers women’s golf since its varsity inception until her retirement in 1994. She shepherded the team when players were fewer and scores were higher, to help build today’s Big Ten Conference program that recruits internationally and regularly defeats ranked opponents.
Now 88, Unger resides in Colorado Springs, Colo. and continues to golf among her daily activities. Prior to heading to the lanes to compete in her bowling league, she was happy to discuss her long-time friend and their history together “On the Banks.”
“I was playing with her when she had that hole-in-one,” said Unger. “She simply loved golf and, although she’s shrunk a little bit, still does. She’s not just special to me, but to so many people at Rutgers.”
Among the challenges Unger faced as Olsson’s 100th approached was what to get a friend of over 60 years on her birthday. It had to come from the heart. The answer? Write her a poem. The title? “Ode to my Dear Friend Agnes.”
The poem highlights their shared experiences and is delivered with a light-hearted humor that has underscored both their friendship and their scorecards.
“I’m still living because I played tennis and golf,” Olsson said. “Write that down.”