Oct. 22, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
Ollie Schniederjans is no scriptwriter, but you wouldn’t have known it Sunday when his last two shots of the fall season – Georgia Tech’s final two shots – gave the Yellow Jackets their biggest title of the autumn.
No finer script could have been imagined. The Jackets rallied from an eight-shot deficit on the back nine at the Golf Club of Georgia to beat UCLA and win the United States Collegiate Championship 874 strokes to 875.
There was a reversal history, theater and magic. Seriously.
The very last play of the season by the last Tech golfer on the course – Schniederjans’ three-foot eagle putt after he’d laser-locked a five iron from 220 yards – iced it.
The resulting win was a bigger deal because last fall it was Tech that led by seven late in this same tournament only to implode as the Bruins passed by for the title.
No wonder Ollie’s teammates and parents stormed the 18th green.
“We remember last year. When I made the eagle putt, everybody kind of went nuts … I honestly was out of it,” Schniederjans said after carding a 71 to finish one-over par for the tournament at 217, tied for seventh place. “I shook everyone’s hand pretty aggressively.
“After I got bombarded by people, I saw coach [Bruce] Heppler at the scoring tent. He gave me a huge high five. It was pretty awesome.”
UCLA opened the day with a two-stroke lead over the Jackets and pushed it. On the back, however, it was the Bruins’ turn to feel the noose that throttled Tech last fall.
Multiple Jackets played the way they are capable, chiefly Schniederjans and Seth Reeves. The red-shirt junior fired even par Sunday to tie 13th in a field of 79 at 219.
Most importantly, playing just ahead of Schniederjans, Reeves shook off a bogey at No. 17 and birdied No. 18 as his UCLA playing mate bogeyed. That pulled Tech within 1. Not long before that, sophomore Anders Albertson had made an important birdie on 15.
Soon after Reeves finished, Heppler had a chat with Schniederjans back down the fairway after Ollie crushed his tee shot about 344 yards on the 564-yard, par-5 18th.
Players do not always want to know the circumstances as they’re unfolding around the course, but a few Jackets told their coach Sunday they could handle the news.
The Jackets trailed by a skinny stroke now, and with just two golfers left on the course. Schniederjans was the only one whose score would matter because his UCLA playing partner was already out of the scoring mix, and the tournament was literally in his hands. Par or worse, Tech finishes second. A birdie would equal a playoff.
“I told him we needed birdie to get even,” Heppler said. “He said, ‘I know. I want to win.'”
And then Schniederjans smacked that five iron.
“I’ve hit more pure shots, but under the circumstances,” he said, “it was pretty sweet.”
It was, actually, par for the course relative to the way Schniederjans played down the stretch.
On 16, “I hit a great drive, a perfect wedge to about four feet below the hole and made birdie. On 17, I hit a terrible tee shot, almost went in the water, and hit a tricky chip shot. I used a lob wedge, hooded the face and ran it up the slope. It wasn’t a classic chip; I had to get crafty.”
That par was big, but not on par with the putt to come on 18.
There were a couple hundred fans surrounding the final green, far more than usual. It was not the biggest crowd Schniederjans had ever hit to, but the feeling was different.
Two years ago, as a high school senior, he played in the junior Ryder Cup in Europe, and while playing a Friendship Match, he was trailing a few big names who were practicing at the Celtic Manor Resort in Wales.
“We were behind Darren Clarke and Sergio Marcia, Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer. There were about 15,000 fans,” he said. “But those circumstances were not as nerve-wracking.”
As Schniederjans sized up the putt to avoid a tie and a playoff, he had rhythm. Still, it was a dicey deal.
“It was three feet, but it wasn’t like a normal straight, flat, three-footer. It was downhill, and I had to play it right at the right edge and I had to have the right speed,” the sophomore said. “It was not a normal three footer physically or mentally.”
Schniederjans had been on a bit of a roller coaster earlier.
“He struggled, didn’t hit any good shots on the front [where Ollie was two over],” Heppler said. “He kept battling. He made a long birdie putt on 11, and that got him going. He played the last three holes great. That play on 17, when he nearly went in the hazard but it stayed out of the water, that was about as feel-good a shot as you’ll get.
“I know that he doesn’t fear the moment. He doesn’t always play great, but he has a belief system that … he knows he’s done it before, and he can do it.”
Once Schniederjans struck that putt, he just knew, saying, “I had testers of about three or four feet on all of the last three holes, and I knew all of them were in.”
With that stroke, Schniederjans and the Jackets put light years between the first day of the season and the last.
Tech began the fall with one of the worst team rounds Heppler’s ever presided over. Ranked No. 4 nationally as the season started, they fired a 13-over par 301 to rest in last place among 15 teams at the Carpet Capital Collegiate in Dalton. They finished tied for 11th.
A couple weeks later, the Jackets tied Cal for the title in the PING-Golfweek Preview, and a few weeks after that they finished second in the Brickyard Collegiate.
Does that qualify as an amazing turnaround?
“It really is,” Schniederjans said. “The first day of the fall was probably the worst day as a team we’ve ever had according to what coach said. We completely blew it. This last round was probably the most incredible day.”
Indeed, it sure beat the same day a year ago, when UCLA rallied past the staggering Jackets. The Bruins returned the favor Sunday and the Jackets more than took advantage of opportunities. They seized them.
That’s a program with depth.
“I told them I said this conversation is a whole lot better than last year, and they all laughed,” Heppler said. “We just weren’t making any birdies, but they helped us out and they we had some great moments at the end. You’re happy for them. They work. You couldn’t ask for better kids.”
Wish I had been at the USCC. It would’ve been better than the school function. To be honest, after the first tournament of the season, I wondered if this would be the year the Jackets’ remarkable golf run might hit a wall. Guess not. Great stuff. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.