On the first full day of his reign as U.S. Amateur champion, Georgia Tech senior Andy Ogletree went to two business classes. This after returning to Atlanta at about 3:15 a.m. Monday from Pinehurst, N.C., where he rallied to win the 36-hole match-play final Sunday.
“When I walked in class, I could hear people whispering, ‘I think that’s the kid that won the U.S. Am,’” Ogletree told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Stuff like that.”
Speaking Monday afternoon, there hadn’t been a lot of time to digest the enormity of what he had accomplished and what it means to be the newest champion of a historic and prestigious tournament that has been won by many of the significant players in American golf history, including Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. Having to go to class – Tech began the semester Monday – has a way of preventing such contemplation.
“In a way (it has sunk in), but not in a way,” Ogletree said. “It’s going to take a while to completely grasp.”
Before this weekend, Ogletree was a fine amateur golfer and a rising Tech senior. On Monday afternoon, he was discovering what accompanied his new status as U.S. Amateur champion. He was conducting a series of interviews with in-house and local media. There were more requests to sort through.
Golf coach Bruce Heppler informed him that the PGA Tour wanted to arrange a photo with him, Tech grad (and past U.S. Amateur champion) Matt Kuchar and the grandson of Jones, the Tech grad who won the tournament five times between 1924 and 1930, at East Lake Golf Club, the site of this week’s Tour championship.
“And the tour’s doing it, so you probably need to go over,” Heppler told Ogletree as he stuck his head into the coach’s office. “You probably need to shave, though.”
The whiskered Ogletree had also earned a spot on the U.S. Walker Cup team, the amateur version of the Ryder Cup. He’ll go back to Pinehurst for practice before heading to England to play against the Great Britain/Ireland team at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake on Sept. 7-8.
That’s only the beginning. The three prizes due the U.S. Amateur champion are spots in the fields for the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open. In fact, Ogletree said, he has privileges to play at Augusta National until the tournament next April. As champion, he’ll play the first two rounds of the Masters with Woods, the defending champion. (Factoid, courtesy of Ogletree: When Kuchar played the Masters in 1998 as U.S. Amateur champion, he also played with Woods, who was then also defending champion at Augusta.)
It’s a long way from his hometown of Little Rock, Miss., a small town in the heart of the state.
“Everyone back home’s super proud,” Ogletree said. “I’m glad to be from a small town, where everybody knows everybody and it’s pretty cool that everyone’s pulling for me and watching.”
Among those who texted Ogletree notes of congratulations after the championship – NFL great Archie Manning, a native of Mississippi and something of a family friend. During the interview, Ogletree’s phone continued to buzz with incoming text messages.
“This is funny,” he said before reading a text sent from a friend back in Mississippi. “I’m in a Mexican restaurant in Decatur (close to Little Rock) right now and I can hear people talking about you and how awesome it is what you did yesterday.”
Ogletree’s title was well earned. Last year, he had a good but not great fall for Tech with two top-20 finishes in three events. Heppler, who said that Ogletree drives the ball off the tee “as well as anyone who has ever played here,” saw he was capable of more and challenged him to become a better short-game player. Ogletree responded, working on his game at home over winter break (he grew up with a 200-yard range at his family’s home along with a putting green and sand trap) and continuing the work at Tech’s practice facility upon his return.
Ogletree, who had largely been what Heppler described as a freewheeler, developed a practice plan and became more technical in his training. He gave himself putting drills to do daily.
“Now I’m just a lot more deliberate and smart with my time and I know exactly what I’m going to work on every day,” he said. “I think it’s helped me a lot.”
In eight spring events, he was in the top 10 four times, including second at the ACC tournament, to earn second-team All-American honors. That was mere prelude to the U.S. Amateur, where he tied for 19th in two rounds of stroke play (needing to make the top 64) and then made it through five rounds of match play (he went 19 holes to beat a high schooler in the round of 32) to reach the final.
There, against John Augenstein of Vanderbilt, he lost four of the first five holes and was four down as late as the 11th hole before cutting the lead to two by the end of the first 18.
“I never saw him panic,” Heppler said. “Even when he was down four.”
That’s who Ogletree is, Heppler said. He’s not one to obsess over a bad practice or bad round. In this instance, he was actually playing well, but just catching a hot opponent. It helped, too, that he had former Tech pitcher (and new golf assistant coach) Devin Stanton caddying.
“We just talked and cracked jokes and didn’t talk about golf a lot until we got to the ball,” Ogletree said. “I was not very stressed out there. That was great.”
Ogletree said he kept commenting to Stanton how cool the environment was, playing in front of hundreds of fans.
Knowing the course, Ogletree’s strengths (including his calm) and the pressure on Augenstein, “I thought there was a really good chance that (Ogletree) could run the other guy down,” Heppler said. “I felt once they got to even, that the moment might be too big for the other kid, and not for him.”
Ogletree won the first hole of the second 18 to cut the lead to one and finally pulled ahead on the 14th hole, the 32nd hole of the match. Still ahead by one at the par-4 16th, he made a deft up-and-down save out of a greenside bunker, rolling in a 10-foot putt to halve the hole. It was a huge momentum play, as Ogletree’s shot into the sand seemed to open the door for Augenstein to win the hole and square the match.
In the most important match of his life, Ogletree successfully called on the short-game dexterity that he had worked so much on since the winter to save him.
“When I look back, that’s the shot I’ll look back to – that one,” he said. “And the putt.”
He parred to win on the next hole, a par-3 on the 17th, when Augenstein double-bogeyed, going up two holes with one to play. In the happy aftermath on the 17th green, coach and player eyed each other and hugged.
“Coach has been saying for a long time that he believes that I can play at the next level, at the highest level, and compete with anybody,” Ogletree said. “It took me a while to really grasp that, I guess.”
He might have wished he’d latched on to Heppler’s message earlier, but it certainly wasn’t too late. A Thursday tee time in April at Augusta National with Tiger Woods is proof enough of that.
“It’s becoming reality, and just trying to soak it all in and not take it for granted,” Ogletree said.
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