By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Andy Ogletree grew up in Little Rock, Miss., with big dreams of playing on the PGA Tour.
That dream is about to come true.
Although it’s doubtful Ogletree, making his debut in a PGA Tour event this week, would have drawn up the scenario for what he’ll experience when he tees it up at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, beginning on Thursday, there’s no dampening his enthusiasm.
“I’ve been looking forward to playing the PGA Tour for a long time,” he said. “This is my first one. Not how I always thought it would be, but it’s good just to be playing in a tournament again. I’ve been looking forward to playing competitive golf again.”
Beginning this exciting new chapter of his golf career certainly wipes away a lot of the disappointment of not being able to write the final chapter to his college ledger. That final chapter had the potential to be a real page-turner. As a senior, Andy finished first or second on the team in three of his five tournaments (he was third another time), recorded three top-10 finishes and a top-five, while recording a team-low 71.07 stroke average, with nine rounds of 70 or below, including a pair of 66’s — the second-lowest round on the squad. He was crucial to Georgia Tech’s No. 3 overall national ranking. For his career, he finished with a 71.54 stroke average, fifth in program history, with eight top-10 finishes.
While Ogletree admits he’ll miss traveling and being with his teammates, he’s unabashedly excited about flying solo to Fort Worth to play at Colonial Country Club.
Ironically, the rescheduling of PGA Tour events caused by the COVID-19 pandemic actually allowed him to schedule this maiden pro voyage and many more a year earlier than expected.
Ogletree will get to play the Schwab Challenge, next week’s RBC Heritage, and the Masters, all events he’d have missed while still playing college golf this past spring.
Editor’s note: The reigning U.S. Amateur champion, Ogletree remains an amateur player in order to keep his spot in the field for the rescheduled Masters tournament in November. He received sponsor’s exemptions to compete in the Schwab and RBC Heritage, as well as the Memorial Tournament in July. His victory in the 2019 U.S. Amateur gave him exemptions into the Masters and the U.S. Open (in September).
“I’m happy for him. It looked like for a while that he’d lost everything, when there wasn’t going to be anything at all,” said Georgia Tech golf head coach Bruce Heppler. “At one point he was a pretty discouraged young man and I was a coach that was disappointed for him. But a lot of stuff has come back.”
They’ll come back with a different look and some different rules. Most notably, at least at first, there will be no fans.
That’s something that, obviously, is disappointing, but it’s also a factor Ogletree feels might be advantageous to him.
“The biggest thing is no fans. That’s going to be different,” he said. “A lot of players are used to having a pretty big crowd out there, but I’ve never really had the big crowds, so it’s not going to be super-different for me.”
There’s more, of course.
“I think the Tour events are going to be shut down for the week, so it’s going to be hard to do club-repair or anything that you need to do equipment-wise,” he said. “They’re going to have cleaning stations, so you’re going to hand your club to a cleaning station, they take it from the cleaning station to the truck, take it back to the cleaning station, hand it to you. It’s going to be a long process for everything. They’re going to be very careful and try not to let anyone get this virus.”
Golfers and caddies will be tested upon arrival at the hotel, where they will be, in effect, quarantined, and have their temperatures taken prior to each round. Social distancing will be strictly enforced while practicing — groups will be limited to 10. During play, there will be no handling of bunker rakes or flag sticks.
“I don’t think that’s going to affect my or anyone’s golf game,” he said. “It’s going to be a little more that you have to pay attention to, and you may be required to do a couple more things, but I don’t think it’s going to be as much as people think they’re going to have to do.
“It’s still golf,” he added. “There’s 72 holes out there and whoever gets in the least shots wins. It’s that simple. I think that’s just how you have to look at it. There’s definitely going to be some differences from what people are used to but it’s still 72 holes.”
Heppler likes Ogletree’s game at venerable Colonial, a par-70 layout that plays 7,200 yards and has hosted PGA Tour events since 1946. He has been paired with veteran Tour pro Keith Clearwater and former Texas Longhorn Kramer Hickok for rounds 1 & 2 (2:01 p.m. Thursday, 8:51 a.m. Friday).
“His game travels. He’s a great driver of the ball whether that’s a hybrid off the tee or a driver,” he said. “I think it’s one of those (courses) that maybe the more times you play it, the bigger advantage those guys will have. But he’s a talented guy, he’s worked really hard, and he’s been playing really well around town. There’s no reason why he can’t succeed at the highest level.”
He’s also confident his pupil won’t be intimidated.
“Obviously, the people around him all day long will be the best players in the world, but that doesn’t really impact what he’s doing,” said Heppler. “It’s not like all of a sudden, Zach Johnson is going to run out on the green and move his ball because he’s a new Tour player or Dustin Johnson’s going to run over him with a cart.
“It’s a different environment and the players are better but it’s not like all of a sudden the speed of the game changes going from college to pro,” he added. “You have to play against the golf course, play against yourself, and control your thoughts and emotions, those kinds of things.”
Ogletree believes he’s at the top of his game, having gotten the chance to play plenty of golf during quarantine — among the courses he’s played are Frederica Golf Club at Sea Island, Ga., where his coach is, the Golf Club of Georgia, near where he’s recently moved, and the Honors Course in Chattanooga.
“I don’t feel like I have any rust,” he said. “I have no reason to have any rust. I’ve done nothing but play golf. I’ve worked on my short game, switched putters, been working a lot on my stroke, chipping around the green. So I think it’s definitely improved over this period. My game feels pretty sharp.”
While Ogletree’s stayed sharp physically, Heppler believes it’s the development on the mental side that gives Andy an all-around game that can make him dangerous on the Tour.
Heppler pointed to the 2019 U.S. Amateur Championship, where Ogletree overcame an early four-shot deficit, tied for fourth-longest in a U.S. Amateur Final, and trailed John Augenstein for 29 holes, tying the longest deficit, before winning four of the final seven holes to complete the comeback.
“He knew it was a long day and 36 holes,” he said. “Maybe when he first got here, he might panic a little bit. I think he’s learned to trust himself and believe in himself and his game and believe that the more holes they play, the better it is for him.
“It’s been both mental and physical,” he added. “His short-game work has really improved. His putting and his stuff around the greens, that has really taken off in the past two years and really been a separator. I think he’s become a really tough guy. He really has a lot of resolve and a lot of maturity. There’s not a panic if he has a bad hole or two. He’s learned that if he just stays out there long enough, the longer he’s there the more of an advantage he has because of how good he is.”
Ogletree certainly isn’t going to outthink himself.
“I’ve been preparing my whole life for the PGA Tour, and I’ve seen myself doing this for a long time, so the thought of playing a Tour event doesn’t really scare me,” he said. “I think my good golf is just as good as anyone else’s, so I don’t see why I would be nervous. But if I am nervous, then I know how to handle it. I know how my body works and how to still perform at a high level. I really don’t think I’ll be nervous, but if I am I’ll figure it out and make the most of it.”
Heppler plans to make the most of his downtime from recruiting and coaching to stay glued to the Schwab via ShotLink (the PGA Tour’s realtime, online scoreboard) as Ogletree embarks on his Tour career and continues Georgia Tech golf’s tradition on it.
“I’m certainly rooting for him to have a great year,” he said. “He’s got a great summer ahead of him, some wonderful events — there are two major championships at the end of the year and really create some great opportunities for him in January of 2021. I don’t think it will be a question of IF he makes it, it will be a question of when.”