Golf is kind of a handsy sport, the digits being rather central to the grip-it-and-rip-it lifestyle.
So, imagine the reaction of Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler when he heard that his star senior, and reigning U.S. Amateur champion, Andy Ogletree had mangled his left thumb in November while playing some pickup basketball.
“It was not great,” Heppler said.
For that matter, consider Ogletree’s reaction, after putting at risk what figures to be a dream spring, highlighted by a Masters tee time with Tiger Woods. All for battling for the ball in a trifling pickup game with buddies.
“I was probably more mad than (Heppler) was,” Ogletree said.
“It was pretty scary. (That left thumb) is kind of important.”
Pleased to report that the wannabe king of the court was just last week cleared to resume grass-based activities. After a two-month recovery from a couple of torn tendons and a bone bruise, Ogletree has begun swinging a club again, working with his teacher in St. Simons last weekend and playing regularly again closer to home.
The challenge now, Heppler said, is to try to get a club out of his hands. “Obviously the itch has returned in rare form,” he said. “I’ve tried to slow him down, but he loves to play, he loves the game, there’s no place he’d rather be. It’s kind of hard to reel him in.”
Life for Ogletree changed in August when, after losing four of the first five holes of the 36-hole match play final, he rallied to win the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst. He became the third player of Tech lineage to win the title, along with Bobby Jones and Matt Kuchar. He got a hero’s welcome-home party in tiny Union, Miss., complete with a police escort. And, most significant, he earned automatic entry into a couple of pretty neat events that you may recognize – the Masters and U.S. Open.
Once he advanced to the Amateur final, he had qualified for the Masters. Once he won, Ogletree was assured a Thursday-Friday pairing with the defending champion, who happens to be Woods, the fellow Ogletree and anyone else who took up golf in the past three decades consider larger than life.
Not the kind of opportunity one wants to see crumble on a basketball court for anything less than a spot in the NCAA regionals.
Lesson learned. Part of Ogletree’s post-U.S. Amateur transformation, part of his evolution into a golfer of substance is the realization that he must put down some of his old, fun habits.
That’s a hard lesson for someone like Ogletree, a small-town soul who prefers being just one of the guys. “Your boys are going to go play some hoops, you want to be part of that. I understand that,” Heppler said.
But he added, “You’ve got to somewhat realize that you’re just not like everyone else.
“You can’t live in a bubble. But I worry because you can hurt your knee, hurt your shoulder, but you hold onto that club with your hands. I’ve been obviously worried about it because that’s how he’s going to make a living.”
So, yes, Ogletree’s days of carefree pickup are done.
“No more basketball,” he said.
“Yeah. I might still shoot, play three-point game or something, but not play a real game.”
One other thing he wants to make crystal clear, while talking about priorities, is that regardless of the many detours and diversions he may face this spring as the freshly minted U.S. Amateur champion, Tech golf is still foremost in his mind.
The Yellow Jackets begin their spring season Feb. 6 with a tournament in Hawaii – yeah, it’s a tough life. Various rankings had them in the top three at the end of 2019. A senior captain, Ogletree combines with other seniors Tyler Strafaci and Luke Schniederjans to give Tech a solid, veteran core. They will be looking to rinse out the disappointment of last season after finishing 18th in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve been amazed,” Heppler said. “My experience tells me that as these guys get older and they’re as good as Ty and Luke and Andy, there are a lot of people in their ear, asking, ‘What are you going to do the day after the NCAA?’ And it begins to kind of move their focus forward rather than on what we’re doing. I have not seen one minute of that. They’re all in, and Andy has helped with that with the choices he has made. It should be a terrific spring for us.”
“Right now, my college team is the most important thing I have,” Ogletree said. “I’m trying to do everything I can to be as good as I can for those guys. I’ll be ready to go come Feb. 6. I’m captain, and the role I have is to lead by example.”
Ogletree will miss one event near the close of the collegiate season, skipping off to the greenest part of Georgia to play with an icon in the world’s most famous golf tournament. Now that he has eliminated the risk of rupture in a game of shirts vs. skins, the chances are better than ever that he’ll actually make it to Augusta.
It will be an excused absence.
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