With all else scrambled, Tech’s Ogletree still has clear Masters dream

Credit: Scott Halleran

Credit: Scott Halleran

Andy Ogletree, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion by way of Georgia Tech, still believes he’s going to cash his ticket to play in the Masters this year. He has to think that his 2020 vision of launching a professional playing career is intact. To do otherwise would be to cede just too much to the virus.

But, it’s complicated. Everything is so complicated.

With all in limbo, why shouldn't one young man's grand golfing design get fed to the shredder, too? And, of course, no golf tournament is beyond the hard realities of today, not even the lordly Masters.

As a 21-year-old who can make a golf ball follow orders better than most, you just have to have some faith in the future. And faith in one event that always seemed as much fable as fact.

"I think they're still going to have a Masters this year – that's their hope," Ogletree said earlier this week over the phone, on his drive back to Atlanta from a jaunt to the Florida Keys with a few friends and Tech teammates.

“I’m not to the point where I’m thinking I won’t be playing in the Masters this year. Right now, I’m just kind of trying to get some more answers. For now, it’s whatever.”

For Ogletree more than one dream came under siege last week.

Last Thursday they pulled the plug on the college golf season, Tech coach Bruce Heppler announcing as much during an emotional team meeting, abruptly ending at least one senior's collegiate career. Even as players are awarded additional eligibility because of the coronavirus shutdown, Ogletree isn't interested. He's graduating in May and, with that U.S. Am title he won last August at Pinehurst in hand, the world's 13th-ranked amateur is ready to move on.

He was ripped from a team that was ranked third in the nation and harbored intentions of a really big finishing kick.

“It kind of sucks to go out this way when we had a great chance to win the national championship,” Ogletree said. “That was everyone’s goal coming into this year. The team has been my focus for four years now. It’s going to be hard to not have a chance to make one more run at the national championship.”

Then a day later, the other FootJoy dropped. After stating earlier in the week that the Masters was going to be played as planned April 9-12, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley announced the tournament had been postponed. There being such a shortage of certainties now, no one can say when or if it will be played later this year.

Right up to the moment of the announcement, Ogletree held onto the hope the Masters would go off as scheduled. “I thought they might do something with no fans,” he said. “Obviously, that wouldn’t have been ideal, but I see how they could have done that, maybe.

“That club specifically does a great job overthinking everything. Everything is so detailed, so well thought out, I’m sure they have very good reasons for everything they’re doing. We’ll just take it one step at a time and see what happens.”

One quaint golf story has been put on hold. Ogletree’s journey from his hometown of Union, Miss. (population under 2,000) to the first tee at Augusta has the kind of small-town feel to it that belies certain haughty country club stereotypes.

Then add in the angle that as the Amateur champ he was scheduled to play the first two days with defending champion Tiger Woods. It could not possibly get any better than that.

Union was poised to further celebrate one of its own. Hadn’t the general manager at one club in nearby Meridian where young Ogletree occasionally trained driven through the night to get to Pinehurst just in time to see Andy rally from four down after five holes to beat John Augenstein 2-and-1 in the 36-hole U.S. Amateur final? And hadn’t proud club members chipped in for congratulatory billboards all around this part of east-central Mississippi, including one that practically cast a shadow over the family’s Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Union?

When the first Mississippi native to win the Amateur returned home in the fall, with the U.S. Am’s Havemeyer Trophy wedged in the back seat of his car, he was given a celebrity’s police escort on the 25-mile drive in from the Alabama border.

“We’re all so stinkin’ proud of him,” his mother Melissa Ogletree told a visitor earlier this year. That would include, in small measure, the kids in Mrs. Ogletree’s first-grade class at Union Elementary.

The wider golf world was about to grow a little more curious about and familiar with that young man playing with Tiger Woods. Maybe it would discover that the son of a grocer had his own little practice facility out back of the Piggly Wiggly, where he could putt and hit balls into a net before cleaning the floors.

That fellow playing with Tiger, and his two brothers, had built their own hole out back of their home, one that could play as long as 200 yards. To keep it well groomed, the boys even bought a used greens mower. A nearby streetlight shone on countless hours of night putting.

His high school team practiced on a 9-hole, par-36 course where a sign out front advertises a $20 greens fee. Ogletree lost the Class AA high school state individual title as a seventh grader when he topped one into the water on the final hole. Lesson learned, he then won the next five.

Decorating one wall of the pillbox of a building generously deemed a clubhouse are a couple plaques bearing the names of the Union Golf Club champions through the years. Ogletree is up there twice. He won his first one when he was just 12 years old, here at a place where there is little luxury to get in the way of building a happy, healthy relationship with golf.

Early on, he had built a reputation in an area not known for its widespread affection for golf. “Everyone around here was always telling him, ‘You’re going to be a little Tiger Woods,’ ” his mother said. “Being from a small town, we didn’t have many golfers here, he was the only young golfer who was known in town. Everywhere we went, he was little Tiger. You’re going to be on TV one day – he heard that from everybody. And he’d just say, ‘I hope so.’ ”

He had his spot all picked out in the crow’s nest, the quarters above the Augusta National clubhouse that has housed generations of young amateurs during the Masters from Nicklaus to Watson to Crenshaw to Woods.

And Ogletree was oh, so ready to pair up with the defending champion in April in Augusta.

This was him talking a good month before the coronavirus dominated the national discussion:

“I was always super obsessed with Tiger, fascinated with everything about him. Nothing fazes him. He’s different than everyone else. He has always been cool to watch, especially under pressure – the putts he makes and the shots he pulls off, things that no one else does.

“I used to wear mock turtlenecks when I was a kid. Had a little tiger headcover on my driver. I’d wear red on my final rounds sometimes. Like every other kid, I was obsessed with Tiger.

“The Masters in general is a dream come true but to be paired with my idol makes it even better. I feel this will prepare me for anything I’ll ever experience in golf. Tiger at the Masters, biggest crowds in the world, most pressure that I’ll probably ever experience, teeing it up with Tiger in my first major. I think it will really help me for the rest of my life. Everything else will be a little bit easier than that, I think.”

How tidy the plan was:

Enjoy the experience of a lifetime at a course where St. Peter should be guarding the gates, paired with an idol to boot. Compete for a national championship in May. Then look to go pro around the time of the Memorial in June

How messy it is now:

Augusta National’s standing rule is that the U.S. Amateur winner (and runner-up) from the preceding year must maintain that status through the Masters in order to play there. It’s a salute to Bobby Jones and the amateur legacy at the club. Ogletree may well want to turn pro now before any rescheduled Masters could be played. Hard to imagine they wouldn’t waive the rule, given the extraordinary circumstances. But that’s just another ‘what if’ in a long line of them.

And what of those plans to go pro?

“I’ll have to see whatever tournaments I can possibly get to play in or if the tournaments are even going to happen or not,” Ogletree said this week. “There are too many questions to be answered now to try to get any kind of plan for professional golf.”

In just a matter of days, everything that seemed so promising and clear has turned so very complicated.