By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
As Georgia Tech’s golf team leaves Atlanta, the No. 3 Yellow Jackets have reasons to feel very good about their chances in a loaded field at the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational even though Tech hasn’t played the event since 2006.
Several players among seniors Luke Schniederjans, Tyler Strafaci, Andy Ogletree, junior Noah Norton and redshirt sophomore Ben Smith have played the Olympia Fields Country Club before, and the Jackets ran away with their first event of the season in winning the Carpet Capital Collegiate by a record 20 strokes on a difficult golf course even though the roster was partially gutted.
Ogletree, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, missed the event while playing simultaneously for the winning U.S. side in the Walker Cup in England, and Norton missed the second and third rounds at The Farm because of back spasms.
That left Tech to rely on two players making their college debuts as scoring golfers in freshman Andy Mao and Smith.
Schniederjans won the tournament going away, firing a 9-under par 207, which was five strokes clear of Strafaci in second place at four-under 212.
Still, Tech rolled. Sub Ogletree back into the lineup, and yeah, the Jackets feel good.
“I think it’s a good confidence boost to know that without two of our top players we can win a top college event by 20,” said Schniederjans, who also won the Carpet Capital in 2016 as a freshman, competing as an individual. “That’s pretty cool.”
Luke Schniederjans waves to the gallery after he drops his final putt to win medalist honors and finish off the Jackets’ victory.
It wasn’t so cool when Norton notified head coach Bruce Heppler shortly before the second round at The Farm that his back had seized up overnight Friday/Saturday.
But he didn’t make an issue of it, even though there are no substitutions allowed in college golf once an event begins. The coach didn’t even tell the rest of his players so as not to create angst. They just kind of figured it out.
“Nope. That’s correct. As if nothing happened. Andy didn’t know until about the 11th hole,” Heppler said. “It didn’t seem to bother him.”
Mao opened with a 77 on Friday that did not count as Norton’s 70 did.
Then, the state champion from Johns Creek High School shot 71-72 to tie for 18th place at 4-over 220. Smith counted every day at 73-78-78 for a 13-over 229. He tied for 48th.
Just six players of 81 finished under par in the tournament, but Heppler wasn’t much surprised by Mao’s weekend. The surprises came earlier in the summer.
“The golf that he played this summer was just way better than he’d ever played. In June, he rolls down to Peachtree City and wins a U.S. Open local qualifier. Was that a surprise for me? Yeah,” explained the coach. “There are good college players in there, and there’s professional golfers. He shot 4-under and won the thing.
“Then he rolls into the state high school tournament and shoots 64-68 and wins by six. Then through 70 holes, he’s got the PGA junior won. That’s anybody who’s playing junior golf. Then a kid birdied 71 and 72 on him. Luke made the comment (earlier this summer), ‘He doesn’t know what rough looks like,’ because he’s in every fairway.”
Mao continued his solid play in qualifying for the Carpet Capital, where two spots were available.
“He had low round of the day at Golf Club of Georgia on first day of qualifying. First day, and he beats everybody on a course he’s played once? OK. Maybe we’ve got something here,” Heppler said. “He goes to East Lake and struggles in the middle round, maybe because he’d never seen it. Third day, right in the middle of [six players playing for two spots] and he shoots 1-under there.”
Freshman Andy Mao stepped up in the absence of Noah Norton to shoot 71-72 in the final two rounds.
Schniederjans was non-plussed by the absence of Ogletree and on Saturday and Sunday. He’s see Mao and Smith up close, and the Jackets are deep in talent.
“When you have confidence in your guys, it’s a little bit easier. I think we all have confidence in each other out there, so even if we had one score that’s not so good, a couple of us are probably going to play well,” Luke said. “We just were confident enough going into the round, that even without Noah, we could post a good score.
“I see the way they were playing in qualifying, and if you’re playing good golf, you’re playing good golf. Andy Mao is a stud; he’s hitting it good, and Ben was playing really good in qualifying, so it’s just another round of golf. That’s the way I look at it.”
No wonder the Jackets will go to Olympia Fields feeling good.
They’re adding the U.S. Amateur champion back to a lineup that will be tested Friday through Sunday by a field that is to include No. 1 Texas, No. 4 Oklahoma State, No. 10 Pepperdine, No. 14 Texas A&M, No. 16 Cal, No. 19 Illinois and No. 23 North Carolina.
And Schniederjans appears to be throttling down in a good way. The occasional layup can be his friend.
“At times he’s been crazy good. If he figures it out, he can be first-team All-American. He can be the college player of the year,” Heppler said. “I was really impressed, because sometimes he tries to make things a little too complicated; he tries to do too much.
“It’s like the guy who can dunk all the time, so now we’re going to dunk every time instead of just laying the ball in or pulling for a little, simple jump shot. He’s going to dunk on you every time. Sometimes, when he could maybe cut his losses, I’ve seen him do that.”
With the full band of brothers back together this weekend, the Yellow Jackets can hope there is a little more margin for error, although on a golf course that has hosted a U.S. Open, Tech will need to be firing on all cylinders.