It was about 10 o’clock on a Friday night this winter. After watching a basketball game on campus, Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler returned to his office at the team’s golf center underneath the Bobby Dodd Stadium stands. He noticed the lights were on.
Alone in a hallway, in his putting stance with his head against a wall, stood golfer Ollie Schniederjans. He was practicing a drill to keep his head steady. Heppler said hello but left him alone, grabbing something out of his office and leaving.
“He has as much passion for this sport as anyone that’s been here,” said Heppler, a considerable statement considering the host of players who have launched pro careers under his care.
Schniederjans’ drive to improve has produced a historic season. He has won five tournaments, most in school history and tied for most in the country. He was named ACC player of the year Tuesday and will learn Sunday if he is the winner of the Ben Hogan Award, given to the nation’s outstanding male amateur and college player of the year.
Schniederjans can win No. 6 when the Yellow Jackets play in a 54-hole NCAA regional in Raleigh, N.C., starting Thursday. Tech will be the No. 1 seed and attempt to finish in the top five of the 13-team field and advance out of regional play for the 22nd time in 24 trips. Five other men’s teams in the state will be playing — Georgia, Georgia Southern and Georgia State are in the San Antonio regional, Mercer is in Tech’s Raleigh regional and Kennesaw State is in the Auburn, Ala., regional.
Schniederjans’ win-encrusted season is the result of a confluence of factors, namely talent, effort and confidence. He shared medalist honors at the Carpet Capital Collegiate in September despite, in his words, “a horrible finish the last two holes.” It gave him the realization that he didn’t have to play perfectly to win.
“I just had to hit some good shots, I didn’t have to do everything,” he said.
Schniederjans has built up such margin with relentless attention to his game. He has a slew of putting devices to help him hone his stroke. He is meticulous about how he uses his practice time, reads up on instruction materials and consults with a variety of coaches. When Heppler happened upon Schniederjans doing his Friday evening putting drills, it wasn’t the only time he had done it.
“I wasn’t trying to impress Coach,” he said. “It was just me trying to get better.”
Heppler’s contributions to Schniederjans’ game have been mostly mental.
“Coach is not a swing coach, but he’s a ‘how you approach everything you do’ kind of guy,” Schniederjans said.
At the end of either Schniederjans’ freshman or sophomore season — he doesn’t remember which — Heppler suggested that he keep a different sort of score, in which he tally the number of shots he took in which he was “completely in the present,” as Schniederjans put it. He did it for about a month, in which his scores improved, which was reflected in his game.
“I would say that has been huge for me,” he said. “It’s made it simple, and it fits my personality.”
Schniederjans’ five tournament victories include the past three Tech has entered, the most recent at the ACC tournament. His 69.73 stroke average ranks second best in school history. The Jackets, meanwhile, have won five tournaments, including the past three stroke-play events, and are ranked No. 5 in the country by Golfstat. After reaching the NCAA semifinals last year, the Jackets are seeking their first national championship.
Schniederjans’ success has been such that, until he addressed it earlier this week, the possibility of him turning pro was a subject of speculation in the college golf community. He will stay for his senior season.
He has more he can improve on, he said, and he thinks he can provide leadership to next year’s team.
“I’m having a great year, and the talk is about me all the time,” he said, “and I’m sure those guys are sick of it. I’m sure they are. I would be if I were them. … I wish it was a little more balanced out within the team.”
The Jackets can do that this weekend by winning their regional. Presumably, the late-night visitor to Tech’s golf center will lead the charge.
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