ATLANTA, GEORGIA | Bobby Jones would undoubtedly approve. Nobody will be comparing it to Jones’ grand-slam summer of 1930, but in many ways during this most unusual 2020 the amateur golf scene has been the summer of Georgia Tech. As the weeks scroll by on the rebooted southern circuit of events, Yellow Jackets have been swarming.
The blazing summer leaves them lamenting how cool the lost spring might have been.
Tyler Strafaci won the 120th North & South Amateur on July 4 at Pinehurst No. 2 and a week later claimed the 45th Palmetto Amateur. The day after that, classmate Luke Schniederjans became the first Georgia Tech golfer in 56 years to win the Georgia Amateur, in the 99th edition of the event first won by Jones in 1916. Eleven days later, Jackets rising junior Connor Howe chipped in for birdie on the last hole to win the 91st Southeastern Amateur in Columbus, Georgia.
Meanwhile, reigning U.S. Amateur champion Andy Ogletree, who also won at Pinehurst No. 2, has been playing in prominent PGA Tour events and preparing to defend his USGA title while awaiting his delayed turns in the U.S. Open and the Masters Tournament this fall. This week he reached the match-play quarterfinals at the Western Amateur.
As sweet as their collective success has been – especially for 2020 seniors Ogletree, Strafaci and Schniederjans, who were among 31 finalists for the Ben Hogan Award – the summer results only confirm the bitterness of their cancelled spring collegiate climax.
“Disappointing,” said Strafaci.
“Frustrating,” said Ogletree.
“It sucked the way it ended,” said Schiederjans.
It ended abruptly in mid-March when the growing COVID-19 pandemic brought sports to a screeching halt. One of the casualties was the NCAA men’s golf championship scheduled to conclude June 1 in Scottsdale, Arizona. Georgia Tech – ranked third, fifth or seventh depending on the poll – was predicted to be a favorite to win the school’s long-awaited first national team championship having been tied for the most tournament wins (with four) in the 2019-20 season.
With those three entrenched seniors, who helped the Jackets win 14 tournaments in the previous three seasons, experienced junior Noah Norton and either Howe or redshirt freshman Brantley Forrester (who won the Puerto Rico Classic in February) to fill out roster, the Jackets would have been an imposing threat in the postseason.
“We felt like it was ours to lose last year and to not even have the chance to see if we could do it (this year) was pretty frustrating,” Ogletree said. “It was obviously the same for a lot of schools across the country, but for us it was three seniors and we don’t know if we’ll be coming back. We might not ever know if we were capable of doing it. So it sucks.”
Said Strafaci: “We would have been one of the favorites to win if not the favorite. I felt like we had the deepest team in the NCAA – Andy was the U.S. Amateur champ; Luke’s won three college tournaments. It was going to be a pretty special end of the season, I had a feeling. Coach (Bruce) Heppler sent us an article with Golfweek’s projection and it said we were gonna win. When he showed us all that, it kind of pissed us all off.”
Said Schniederjans: “It’s a bummer because it was kind of our last go at it. We missed it together our first couple years at it so we only had one real shot at NCAAs our junior year. We had that under our belt and were definitely looking forward to the postseason this year.”
“It’s good to learn all the things I’m learning as an amateur and not try to figure it out as a pro.” – Andy Ogletree
How they’ve performed coming out of quarantine only solidifies their frustration. As seniors, they all expected to begin chasing professional dreams this fall only to have the chaos delivered by the pandemic deal them another blow to their best-laid plans. The NCAA quickly moved to grant eligibility extensions to all spring sports athletes, meaning all three could return to take a mulligan run at the NCAAs in 2021 if they choose.
Strafaci already took advantage of that and is gearing the rest of his summer schedule to be prepared for another collegiate season – which won’t start until spring since the ACC canceled the fall golf season on Wednesday. Players can continue to practice this fall and compete unattached to their teams.
“My goal before the coronavirus hit was to turn professional after NCAAs and work that way,” Strafaci said. “Just the sour taste it left in our mouths after having our season canceled, it did make it a little easier (to come back) because I wanted to get out here with the boys and practice, play and compete for a national championship.”
Schiederjans and Ogletree haven’t made commitments yet.
“I’ve been thinking about things and definitely haven’t closed the door on possibly coming back for a fifth year,” said Schniederjans, whose older brother, Ollie, was the No. 1 amateur in the world at Georgia Tech and now plays on the Korn Ferry Tour. “I should probably know by now but playing it by ear and want to see how the last couple amateur events go this year. … I went ahead and got my degree. There’s so much unknown still out there, and conferences canceling fall seasons. Just have to wait and see.”
Ogletree’s original plan was to play the Masters in April as an amateur and then play the Memorial and U.S. Open as a professional. In March he felt confident he could get enough PGA Tour exemptions to gain some professional status, but with the shutdown and stacked fields in the three events he has played this summer (missed cuts at Harbour Town, Colonial and Muirfield Village), his options have been more limited.
“Coach (Heppler) and I have talked a lot. I know what I’m doing but I’m not gonna say 100 percent right now because nothing is for certain right now,” Ogletree said of what turned out to be an awkward pandemic-deprived transition for anyone ready to turn pro. “I’m not gonna throw a pity party for myself but there’s definitely some disappointment.
“I’ve definitely had some opportunities get taken away but if I take care of business and I play good golf, then those opportunities will come back in the future. It’s not anything that I think is going to hinder my career or anything like that. Those opportunities just might get delayed a little bit.”
Should events transpire to lead all three to return to Atlanta in the spring and join Norton as a formidable senior foursome focused on another NCAA run, they all concede it would be “cool.”
“It would be a blast,” Strafaci said. “They are some of my closest friends and to do it again for a fifth year would be awesome. If they come back, our team will be unbelievable. Even if they don’t, I’m very confident Georgia Tech is going to put together a team that’s going to be the best in the nation. I’m not worried about that.”
For now, they hope to extend Georgia Tech’s red-hot summer. Ogletree was the only one to advance out of medal play at this week’s Western Amateur, but all of them will compete in the U.S. Amateur, Aug. 10-16 at Bandon Dunes/Bandon Trails in Oregon.
Ogletree still has more ways to assess his game at a pair of majors this fall. He hopes it will be different than his experience thus far, though the U.S. Open recently announced it also will be played without spectators.
“All three tour events I’ve played this summer were pretty much major championship fields,” he said. “It’s good to learn all the things I’m learning as an amateur and not try to figure it out as a pro. I’m getting a head start on everyone coming out that I’m going to compete with as a pro.
“It’s been kind of weird. Growing up as a kid you think of playing PGA Tour golf and playing in front of all the big crowds. I’ve played three PGA Tour events this summer and it’s just been kind of like a junior tournament. There’s no one out there. You’re playing with guys you grew up watching on TV, but it’s not what you envisioned for professional golf. So I’m hoping we can get some crowds out there (at Augusta).”
The TV cameras have been turned off by the time he’s teed off in the last grouping every day, but he knows that will change when he gets to Augusta National. He’ll get to reprise a role played in 1998 by the last Georgia Tech U.S. Amateur champion, Matt Kuchar, and play with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds on Bobby Jones’ course.
“So ‘Kooch’ and I both playing with Tiger when he was defending the Masters 22 years apart is pretty cool,” Ogletree said. “A lot of history there.”
Georgia Tech’s Andy Ogletree, the reigning U.S. Amateur champ, will play the U.S. Open and the Masters. Photo: Peter Byrne, PA Wire via Getty Images
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