All about the urban oasis that is Georgia Tech’s golf practice facility are the reminders of what this program is meant to be.
Stewart Cink’s name is on the clubhouse. Matt Kuchar’s name is on the indoor training building. And there’s even a living, breathing Schniederjans still on the roster.
These are not the kind of names to be associated with a forgotten program. So, getting the Yellow Jackets back on the leaderboard of an NCAA finals — they begin play Friday in Arkansas — after missing out on the last three is a sign that some normalcy has returned to this corner of the college golf firmament.
“Guess it’s about time to stick the name back up there and remind everybody that we still play some pretty good college golf around here,” said Bruce Heppler, Tech’s golf coach for nearly the last quarter century. The coach says he has been somewhat, um, put off by just how quickly the pedigree of this team has been overlooked after just a few seasons out of the mix. And the last two, Tech just missed advancing out of the regionals by the skinniest of margins, a single stroke.
Tech, at No. 4, is the highest-ranked of three state teams in the NCAA final, joining 15-ranked Georgia and unranked Georgia Southern. Thirty teams begin four days of stroke play Friday in order to whittle down to a final eight for three rounds of match play.
For Tech, a core group of Luke Schniederjans, Andy Ogletree and Tyler Strafaci reported together in 2016 as freshmen, took its lumps and now has grown into the hub of a hopeful team. After a restless beginning, these players finally are where they figure they belong.
“Luke and I actually had a meeting with coach halfway through freshman year,” Ogletree recounted, “and basically said this isn’t what we wanted, this isn’t what Georgia Tech is. We want to change it. Coach kind of left it up to us. Last couple of years me, Luke and Ty and I have played pretty much every tournament, played pretty well and kind of got the program back in the right direction.”
And making to the finals is “everything,” Schniederjans said. “It’s what you do all year especially at a place like this because coach has pretty much accomplished everything else in golf. The whole motive of the team is the final tournament.”
Literally possessing a very big name on campus, Schniederjans is the third and final brother to pass through Tech. Ollie was the former No. 1-ranked amateur golfer in the world and a current PGA Tour pro. Ben pitched for the baseball team. The three of them combined can claim six ACC team championships (Ollie three, Luke just won his second and Ben one).
A national championship – granted Oklahoma State is a big favorite – would give Luke huge family bragging rights. For all the pro players and the conference titles churned out by Heppler’s teams, Tech has yet to win the big one, finishing second six times.
The youngest brother, who was led to golf after growing up with Ollie around the course, came to Tech with none of the fanfare that accompanied the other golfing Schniederjans. Not highly recruited, Luke arrived with the familiar name but little else to point to.
“Very different careers,” Heppler said. “Ollie shows up the No. 1- or 2-ranked junior player in the world and all of the expectations that go with that. And Luke was kind of a skinny little guy. They were not the same guy physically.
“Luke has turned himself into a heck of a player. They arrived from a completely different place and hopefully they’ll leave from a pretty similar place.” Emblematic of the growth of all three of Tech’s core players is the steady shrinkage in Schiederjans’ scoring average the last three years: 71.87, 71.67, 69.77.
It was Ollie who inspired his brother to play in the first place. “I saw what my brother was doing and played with him a lot,” Luke said. “Had a couple buddies who were really into golf. That whole last year that I played baseball I really wanted to move on and play golf.”
It was Ollie who pushed his skinny younger brother toward the gym, because who wants to always be lagging so far behind big bro off the tee (Ollie is top 10 on PGA Tour in driving distance)?
And it was Ollie who informed Luke of the excitement of what awaits this week. “He said that (the NCAA finals) is a really cool tournament and once we go there we’ll realize what we missed out on the last couple years.”
The entire Schniederjans clan is scheduled to gather in Arkansas at some stage of the tournament — playing at Colonial this week on Tour, Ollie will show up Monday at the latest. Because Tech making it back to the biggest stage in college golf is nothing to be taken lightly or for granted.
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