Olivia Mehaffey is finding her way back after grief brought on a breakdown

After losing her father to cancer, the Armagh golfer endured a torrid 2022 and stepped away from the game

Olivia Mehaffey knew that something had to change. It wasn’t quite right to say that she couldn’t go on like this. If anything, that was part of the problem. Going on like this was what she had been doing for most of the year. It was all she knew how to do.

Her father Philip died in December 2021 after a long spell with cancer. She started 2022 by playing eight weeks straight, all over the planet. Arizona in March, then back-to-back weeks in South Africa, followed by back-to-back weeks in Thailand, then a fortnight of tournaments in Australia. She rounded it off with the Madrid Open on her way back home to Scarva, a small village on the Armagh/Down border.

Eight weeks in a row. Who does that? Someone who doesn’t want to go home, basically. Mehaffey was broken by the loss of her father but couldn’t bring herself to admit the scale of it to anyone, least of all herself. She was miserable and lost and nowhere near the golfer she wanted to be.

Grief is the weirdest thing I’ve ever been through. I think that’s one of the reasons people don’t talk much about it. It’s because it’s so hard to explain. You don’t know when it’s going to come.

—  Olivia Mehaffey

By the time she got to August, she had played 17 tournaments, missed nine cuts and had withdrawn from the Skafto Open in Sweden after one round. That night, after pulling out of the tournament, she sat in the house she had rented with some friends and cried for hours. She was, in her own words, having a breakdown. Grief had her in a vice and the squeeze was relentless.


“I’m in a better place now,” she says. “And it’s only by being in a better place that I can realise how bad a place I was in. I honestly don’t know how I kept playing those weeks when I was struggling that badly.

“So I think to actually take the time to get the help, I feel almost refreshed going into this season. When you start to hate your job and you’re miserable and the thing you’ve always loved so much is not enjoyable any more, it’s a pretty bad place to be in.”

After pulling out of the tournament in Sweden, Mehaffey decided to stop for a while. To stop golfing. To stop going. To stop, essentially, everything. She needed time and space to regroup, to find some sort of accommodation with her grief. To try to understand what it wanted from her.

“Grief is the weirdest thing I’ve ever been through,” she says. “I think that’s one of the reasons people don’t talk much about it. It’s because it’s so hard to explain. You don’t know when it’s going to come.

“I’ve had times when I’ve felt totally fine and then all it’s taken is one thought to trigger it and I’m a mess. And in life, we’re basically taught that everything can be answered. But everyone’s experience is so different, it comes to different people in different ways and at different times. That’s what makes it hard for people to understand.”

So she stopped. And then what?

“It was a bit of an identity crisis at the start. I remember the first three or four days and I just didn’t want to leave the house. I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t want to touch a golf club. I didn’t want to go to the gym. I didn’t want to do anything. And I’m really not a person who likes to lie around and do nothing.

“So I was thinking to myself, ‘Should I go and get a job here? Should I do a bit of waitressing or something for a bit?’ Just to be a normal person while I’m working things out for myself. I was juggling this stuff in my head and what I came back to was asking myself what I was actually passionate about.”

In the meantime, she had to go to the US for a bit and head back to her old apartment in Phoenix to move some stuff. Mehaffey was a star college golfer at Arizona State between 2016 and 2021 and she still has plenty of ties there, including one of her sponsors, the Carlisle Company. She made the trip along with her mother and cousin and folded in a meeting with Carlisle along the way.

Truth be told, she went in with some trepidation. They were sponsoring her to play golf and whatever she was doing now, it wasn’t that. But not only were they understanding about where she was in her head, they encouraged her to really lean into it.

“They asked me what I wanted to do with my time off and I said I was thinking of maybe a podcast or a blog or something like that. I didn’t really know but I did have this sort of half-thought that if I maybe shared a bit about the grief I was going through that it might help somebody. And they were there straight away going, ‘You should do this.’

“They were talking to me about how many people struggle with exactly this problem and how athletes have a voice but don’t speak out enough. I couldn’t speak highly enough of them. My job is to compete in professional golf and I was dreading that conversation, basically telling them that I wasn’t going to be doing it for a while. But they were so supportive. They gave me the nudge I needed to start the blog.”

She made her first post on her website at the start of November. She had always journalled but this was different. It was sitting down and throwing open all her doors for anyone who felt like having a snoop around. It was picking through her own story and never sparing herself.

The blog is updated once a week and it goes bone-deep in places. She details her thoughts and worries, some of them perfectly rational, some of them less so. All the way through, her honesty hits you between the eyes.

Read Olivia Mehaffey’s blog here

“Once I got going, it was easier than I thought,” she says. “The hard thing was taking yourself back to the worst moments. What I had in my head was to write it as a timeline of everything that had happened. And as I went along, reliving some of it was the hardest part. But it really helped me. I didn’t see it as therapy when I was doing it but in a way it is.

“I think the best thing about it for me is that it is freeing. When those words were coming out of you and you were typing them, it was like a therapy session. It came out very free-flowing and I think that was because I had bottled things up for so long. I had never fully talked to people about the extent of what I was going through and how I was feeling. And so in a way, it was like I want to get everything out.”

Bit by bit, week by week, she walked herself back up the breadcrumb trail. She did the work, Mind, body and spirit. She got back to golf when she couldn’t stay away any longer and set about resuming her career. The 2023 Ladies European Tour begins in a fortnight in Kenya. She circled the date in the calendar and aimed herself at it. No guarantees, no illusions.

“If you’re not where you’re supposed to be mentally in any sport, it’s going to be hard. But especially in golf. I remember walking the fairway in Galgorm Castle and I had a really close friend Davy Jones caddying for me. We were walking up the 15th and he was just asking me questions about life. Just passing the time really.

“I was missing the cut by miles and by that stage, just getting through 36 holes was a big achievement. And I just found myself walking up this fairway crying my eyes out. I was just in a place where I was getting so distracted and my head was so clouded, I just couldn’t function. I was on the golf course and I was making decisions that made no sense. Even just basic course management became impossible. I was there but I wasn’t there.”

And so she goes again. She’s better than she was. Not away and gone, not free of all worries, nothing like that. But able to get up and get going without her grief jostling her at every turn. If and when it comes back for a visit, she will hopefully see it coming up the drive now.

Getting back on tour is going to be about small wins, first and foremost. Playing with freedom. Grinding pars. Making cuts. Going from there. She doesn’t know yet what it will all be like but she’s excited to find out.

“I have put so much work into it that I feel like have got the tools now. I am prepared to handle it. I know it will happen at some stage. It’s not like you click your fingers and everything is better overnight. I’ve been through it. I know not to let it get so far. I was in such a fragile place that last time I competed but it’s so different now.

“I was talking to my coach the other day about how I felt about going back. And he said to me, ‘You just look like you could take a punch now.’ And I was like, ‘That’s exactly right.’ I do feel a bit like that.”

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times