Nov. 1, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
Ollie Schniederjans is laying low, going a spell where all golf clubs are foreign objects. The same goes for most of his Georgia Tech teammates. The off-season is short in college golf, and unlike last year the Yellow Jackets now feel like they’ve earned respite.
Ollie hasn’t played since his moment-for-the-ages eagle on 18 propelled the Yellow Jackets to the U.S. Collegiate Championship title on Oct. 21, and he probably won’t play again until next month.
The down time will end. One very warm and fuzzy memory will not.
Catching up with Schniederjans, teammate Anders Albertson and coach Bruce Heppler offers here the opportunity to dive deeper into that hold-your-breath sequence down the stretch at the Golf Club of Georgia, and a particularly interesting part of it.
This will require more of your reading time than usual, but it’ll be worthwhile.
If you’ve read about the finish at the USCC, you probably noticed that some fuss was made over Schniederjans and Heppler discussing where the team stood as the last hole of the entire tournament was being played out.
That fuss was because that’s not the norm.
Most college golfers seek to work their way into a zone. Outside information like the team score, who’s in the lead, and by how much can be for many like static on a phone line – interference, a zone breaker.
But there was the last scoring golfer on the course, Schniederjans with a swing the whole shooting match. As he and Heppler were discussing matters, it was not par for the course. The coach had a pretty good idea that the Jackets were one stroke in arrears of UCLA, but . . .
“The question is do you run out and tell them that? I’ve always been a bubble guy. You climb in a bubble, and to know this or know that has nothing to do with trying to execute the shot. So I’ve always been a no-scoreboard-watching, no-need-to-know guy,” Heppler said.
“It goes back to the thing with [former Jacket] Matt Kuchar . . . I said, ‘Are you trying to keep track of the scores?’ He said, ‘Well, yeah; there are scoreboards and all that.’ This was in Albuquerque, first tournament of his freshman year [in 1996]. And I said, ‘Just go out and focus on what you’re doing. That’s all you can control anyway.’ So he did, didn’t pay attention [to other scores], shot 67 and finished fifth or sixth in his first tournament. He said afterward, ‘This isn’t that hard.’
“We go to Tennessee for the second tournament of his college career, and the scoreboard was on the way to the practice range. And I said, ‘I challenge you for three days to not look at that.’ I watched, and to my knowledge – although he may have fooled me like he did on many things – he never looked.
“Last day, weather problems, shotgun start so they start all over the golf course. Back then, there’s no on-line scoring, no Golfstat, no internet back then, so . . . they don’t know where they stand.
“So I went out and got him and said, ‘I think you’re going to be pretty happy.’ He said, ‘Why’s that?’ I said, ‘No. 1, you played good.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I shot five-under.’ And I said, ‘Well, you just won your first college tournament.’ And he said, ‘Well, this isn’t that hard.’ “
Heppler’s general thought is, why add interference? Focus only on what you’re doing.
“Why do you want to worry about what the score is?” he said. “You can’t go tackle that guy. You can’t hit him. You can’t play defense . . . What you’re trying to do is climb in and have a pre-shot routine that doesn’t change. That’s what this is all about, right? Playing freed up. To me, the score adds to the dilemma of getting into that zone.”
Schniederjans, who has something approximating a fighter’s defiance, and Albertson aren’t having any of that. Same goes for teammate Seth Reeves, they said.
“The reason I ask is I’ve always been like that in sports. I’ve always played really well with my back against the wall . . . it’s good for me to know where I am,” Ollie said.
“Any time it’s close, I like to know because my competitive side kicks into gear. And once you get out of college, it’s impossible to not know where you stand so you might as well get started.”
It’s not like these guys are tracking team scores from start to finish while on the course.
“For a three-day event, I really don’t care the first two days. I’ll start asking on the final nine holes,” Albertson said. “We both told coach that it really doesn’t affect us one way or the other. If anything, it’s more of a positive on the last couple holes . . . There’s a human aspect there that makes you go harder when you’re close, go for the win.”
Actually, some of this new approach was borne out of Albertson not knowing enough down the stretch, going too hard because of it, and the Jackets missing a chance to win a tournament outright earlier this fall.
They tied Cal for the title in the PING/Golfweek Preview.
As Albertson and teammate Bo Andrews played the final hole of the tournament, Heppler knew that if either one of them made par on 18 Tech would’ve taken the trophy for itself. Andrews bogeyed and so did Albertson – in part because he was gambling/gunning for a birdie in order to shoot a sub-par round.
Afterward, there came a chat.
“Anders said, ‘Did you know [that he or Andrews needed a par for the team title]?’ ” Heppler said Albertson asked. “I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well, you need to tell me next time in that scenario because I was trying to make a 3 but from where I was I could have got you your 4.
“Ollie was hearing this conversation, and he said, ‘I feel the same way. I want you to tell me if I’m on the last hole what I need to do for us to win the tournament. I can handle it.’ “
So now there’s a greater chance for dialogue when it’s time to dig deep.
Truth be told, most golfers have at least a general idea where things stand. There are times, however, when nuance blurs details. Even Heppler is sometimes left to guess at the team score because of mis-steps like human error in the way scores are entered, lag times, a crash of the internet, or – in his latest real-time example – a dead phone.
Heppler wears that thing out on the course in keeping track of a tournament. So, as the afternoon wound down at the USCC, he had to do some math in his head.
“Going down to the end, my phone had no more juice. I had refreshed it out,” he said. “But I thought going to the 18th tee I knew pretty well where we were. It’s not official because Seth is still playing the hole in front of us. I see Seth make 4, and I see the UCLA guy make 5. So in my mind, I think . . . we’re one back.
“Ollie hits this great drive. We’ve got 220 to the hole, here we go. I said, ‘You wanna know?’ He said, ‘Oh, I already know.’ I said, ‘Well, 4 gets us in a playoff.’ He said, ‘I’ll get a 3 and we’ll get outta here.’ And he said, ‘I got it.’ I said, ‘The only advice I’ll give you is based on where that flag is . . . you’ve got to hit it right of the flag.’ “
Schniderjans nailed it. He cut a 5-iron to about three feet.
Heppler’s sitting behind his desk as he says this, but in his minds eye he’s there again, at the Golf Club of Georgia on a glorious Sunday afternoon, the sun and that shot lighting the way to a beautiful day.
“This thing started out just inside the nose, and cut about four yards and scooted up the hill . . . unbelievable,” the coach recalled with a grin. “Arguably one of the two or three best shots I’ve seen live for sure.”
Schniederjans, of course, stroked the eagle putt to push the Jackets past UCLA for a one-stroke win on the very last play of the fall season.
“We never knew anything last year. I don’t think anybody on the team asked; everybody attempted to not know,” Ollie said, noting some teammates still prefer not knowing certain details. “When you have an idea, that consumes your mind wanting to know how close you are. It almost puts your mind at ease knowing exactly where you are.
“Do I need to cruise in, or go for it? You don’t want to have to try to not think about something. In every other sport you know. In the fourth quarter, it affects the way you drive in the last two minutes whether you’re up seven or down seven. Golf is really the only sport where there is an option to know or not know. That’s just me. I’ve got to know.”
Heppler knows this: he’s in a much better mood than last offseason, where the Jackets were left stewing about a final-round collapse that enabled UCLA to pass them for the USCC title.
For the coach, there’s this as well:
“I listened to Coach K. the other night. He was asked why doesn’t he retire. He’s got [Olympic] gold medals, national championships . . . and he got to the essence of it. He said, ‘I coach for moments . . . whether that would be a kid graduating who you didn’t think would graduate, or somebody getting to play that you didn’t think would get to play, or special shots made, or somebody changing the way they look at life and becoming a better person . . . I just coach for moments.’
“That really is the essence of what this is about. Moments that are really cool, and you get a front-row seat. And that was a really cool moment.”
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