Out of the Rough


The subject of Oliver Rheinfurth’s depression comes up, and almost instantly tears flood the eyes of Ursula Rheinfurth, his mother.

“It was a very, very difficult time,” Ursula said, her voice filled with concern. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Moments later, the subject turns to Oliver’s recovery, his return to normal life, the golf course and his appearance in the U.S. Amateur Championship beginning Monday at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y.


The tears turn to laughter. The desperation now sounds like relief.

“I’m ever so grateful he came out of it,” Ursula said. “Ever so grateful.”

Oliver is better. The second of Ursula’s three children is much better.

The suicidal thoughts that haunted him are gone. The stretches of sleeping away days are over.

And Oliver, a 38-year-old Northridge resident who grew up in Studio City, is back playing golf at a high level--the way he did for many years before his illness.

The U.S. Amateur is the pinnacle of amateur golf, where Tiger Woods made history, where Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer burst through the paper banner at golf’s front door and declared, “Here I am.”

But for Oliver Rheinfurth, most importantly, it’s a long way from the depths of depression that intruded on his life from mid-1986 through early 1988--a depression that caused alienation of family and friends and kept him off the golf course for nearly two years.

“I couldn’t deal with anything,” Rheinfurth said. “I was almost a vegetable. I was an absolute basket case.”

His problems began with a car accident in 1978 while he was exiting the Ventura Freeway at DeSoto Avenue in Woodland Hills. It was a minor accident, with a car headed north on DeSoto barely clipping Rheinfurth’s car.


Eight years later, at the same location, Rheinfurth’s car was struck again. This accident was more serious--a sideswipe that caused minor injuries to his neck and back.

“It was so bizarre,” Rheinfurth said. “The same intersection.”

A few months before that second collision, a wayward golf ball struck Rheinfurth in the head. Add to those mishaps a stressful finance consultant job in which he worked 60 to 70 hours a week, and Rheinfurth sunk.

“I basically stressed out,” he said. “I was miserable, absolutely miserable.”

Cooped up in his parents’ house, his childhood home, Oliver declined to see friends when they visited during the day. At night, he would wake up screaming and dripping with sweat.

The thought of getting in a car frightened Rheinfurth. Driving was out of the question. Golf, once a daily activity, became a distant memory.

His weight, now a healthy 180 pounds, dropped to 139. Ursula recalls one day when she almost broke down herself.

“I remember him lying in bed saying, ‘I want to die,’ ” Ursula said. “I took him to Forest Lawn and showed him an open grave and said, ‘There it is, jump right in.’ It didn’t look good for a while.”


Oliver, while acknowledging a multitude of suicidal thoughts, said he never actually devised a method for ending his life.

“I never came close,” he said. “I was too chicken. It was a recurring thought, but it never seemed right. It was more like I just wanted a vacation from myself.”

Doctors came up with myriad diagnoses for Rheinfurth’s condition--bi-polar manic depression and post traumatic stress disorder were among the most common.

Those same doctors told Ursula and her husband, Kurt, that the symptoms were incurable and that Oliver would most likely have to spend the rest of his life in a psychiatric hospital.

But as others gave up on Oliver, Ursula never did.

“They said put him in an institution,” Ursula recalled. “They said, ‘Forget that you have this son, you have two other children.’ I refused to accept that diagnosis.”

Prescribed medications failed to bring Oliver out of his depression. Frustrated with medical opinions, Ursula decided to take matters into her own hands.


“One day I just said the hell with everything,” she said.

She started taking Oliver for walks, taking him to the beach to play volleyball and to the park, just to get him out of the house.

“My mom was my guiding light at that time,” Oliver said.

Ursula tried other methods. She read every book on depression she could get her hands on and made regular visits to local churches.

The big breakthrough came late in 1987. Ursula had been taking Oliver to a motivation specialist. The sessions, which were primarily positive-thinking exercises, seemed to be making progress.

After one session, after 1 1/2 years without getting behind the wheel of a car, Oliver asked if he could drive home.

“I guess it had just run its course,” Rheinfurth said. “When I got behind the wheel again--that was a big step.”

The next big step came when Oliver returned to the golf course. But even Oliver couldn’t have been prepared for what happened when he played at Harding Golf Course that day after jury duty.


“I hadn’t touched a club in two years and I shot 70,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a high correlation between my game and the amount of time that I practice and put into it.”

Ursula’s goal throughout the hard times was to see Oliver play golf again.

Rheinfurth has played in the U.S. Amateur before--in 1981 and 1983. He tried to qualify every year from 1979-1983.

He was a budding college star then. He played on talented UCLA teams in the late 1970s and early ‘80s that included Corey Pavin, Steve Pate and Duffy Waldorf, among others.

He turned pro in 1988. He played the Golden State Tour with moderate success and in Canadian Tour events before regaining his amateur status after growing tired of the sport.

Now there are more important things in Rheinfurth’s life. His wife of eight months, Debbie. Her 10- and 12-year-old sons from a previous marriage. His health.

“People are always asking me how I am now,” Rheinfurth said. “But [my depression] was a small blip in my life. Nothing has happened since then. I’m very lucky to have had a strong support system. I could be in a lot worse places.”


But by becoming competitive again in a sport that relies so much on a sound mental approach, Rheinfurth has proven that he is OK.

He believes it. His friends believe it. And his mother believes it.

“It very easily could have gone the other way,” Ursula said.