How some tough love (and a lot of short-game practice) turned Andy Ogletree into a U.S. Amateur champion
PINEHURST, N.C. — When Andy Ogletree was out in the gloaming at the Georgia Tech golf team’s practice facility last spring, hitting bunker shot after bunker shot against the Atlanta skyline, he could not have known about the precarious spot he’d find himself later that summer, on a sticky Sunday afternoon in the sandhills of North Carolina. All the 21-year-old from the small town of West Point, Miss., was trying to do back then was figure out a way to become a truly elite golfer, and he knew that the short game he had the first 2½ years in college wasn’t going to get him where he wanted to go.
But now, on the 34th hole of the final match of the 119th U.S. Amateur, Ogletree understood this was what he was practicing for all along. Just two holes before, he had finally wrestled the lead away from his opponent, match-play ace John Augenstein, only to have his approach shot land in the bunker just left of the green on Pinehurst No. 2’s 16th hole. Ogletree had roughly 60 feet to the hole, which was sinisterly sitting on a ridge. Hit it too hard and the ball would roll over the green. Too soft and it comes back toward him. (Damn you, Donald Ross!)
Ogletree played the shot swiftly and assertively, the ball stopping 10 feet from the hole. When he finished off the up-and-down for par, even Augenstein was impressed, thinking that the 4 he was in the process of making would win the hole and tie the match. Instead, Ogletree kept his 1-up lead and the momentum.
One hole later, Augenstein got aggressive with a birdie putt on the par-3 17th only to four-putt for double bogey, and Ogletree was the 2-and-1 winner of the biggest tournament of his life.
“[Last fall], he doesn’t get that ball on the green if he’s playing that hole all by himself,” said Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler of the shot on the 16th hole, let alone in front of TV cameras and hundreds of spectators.
Ogletree didn’t disagree. “I felt very confident over that bunker shot,” he said. “I’m not sure I would have nine months ago.”
The tough-love conversation between Ogletree and Heppler had become the stuff of legend in the Georgia Tech camp. They were at Blaze Pizza in Atlanta last November, and Heppler let Ogletree know he had the game tee-to-green to be a successful tour pro, but the reason he had yet to win a college event was that he just wasn’t good enough around the greens.
So Ogletree did something about it, working with Jeff Patton on technique in the sand. Meanwhile, teammate Noah Norton helped him with some putting drills. Ogletree put in time daily at the short-game area. And in the spring semester, he saw his stroke average drop 1½ shots without hitting his driver or irons any different.
If perseverance in part characterizes Ogletree’s golf development, it certainly describes how he claimed the Havemeyer Trophy on Sunday. The day started with promise; Ogletree shot the equivalent of a 67 on Pinehurst No. 4 during the morning 18 (for the first time in U.S. Amateur history the 36-hole final was contested over two courses). The problem? Augenstein, a rising senior at Vanderbilt, shot a 65, and held a 2-up lead.
But Ogletree had reason to be optimistic despite the fact that Augenstein’s match-play record since spring 2017 was an impressive 17-3-1. Ogletree had been 4 down after five holes, but cut into that lead, winning the 18th with a birdie.
“The whole lunch I was ready to go,” Ogletree said. “I wanted to go make another birdie.”
Ogletree did just that on the first hole of the afternoon. Yet Augenstein continued to hold his own. A birdie on the 28th hole gave Augenstein a 2-up edge with just eight holes remaining.
The next four holes would be the turning point. On the 29th, Augenstein’s drive found the waste area (damn you, Coore and Crenshaw!) and set up a bogey that cut his lead back to 1 up. On the 31st hole—No. 2’s 13th—the tees were moved forward to a drivable 309 yards. Ogletree didn’t bite, electing to hit an iron while Augenstein pulled driver. Ogletree found the fairway and then hit a wedge to four feet; Augenstein drove it in a greenside bunker and splashed out to eight feet. Augenstein missed, Ogletree didn’t, and suddenly it was tied.
On the 32nd hole, another wayward drive by Augenstein forced him to lay up on the par 4. With 40 yards still to the green, he couldn’t get up and down, so when Ogletree went fairway, green, two-putt from 25 feet, he finally had the lead.
“I hit some really good shots down the stretch and my iron play was incredible all day,” said Ogletree, who became the first golfer who trailed after the morning to win the title since Steven Fox in 2012. “I just kept putting pressure on John.”
It wasn’t like Ogletree just started working hard at golf in the last year. He had done so since first playing the game at age 4. His father, Jim, says Andy took to the sport quickly, in part perhaps because relatives of his wife, Melissa, were teaching professionals. Jim even built a golf hole in their yard, adding a street light over the green to allow Andy and his two brothers to practice at all hours. (Ironically, the hole even had a bunker.)
Copyright USGA/Chris Keane
Jim owns the Piggly Wiggly grocery story in town, and from time to time Andy would work as a bagger, getting paid minimum wage ($7.35 an hour) for the work. “I always told him, ‘If this doesn’t work out, you’re going to be bagging groceries the rest of your life,’” Jim said. “He dug a little harder when I said that.”
Andy’s excused absence from work was golf, which gave him even more incentive to get out to the course and fine-tune his swing. He caught Heppler’s eye in high school, a bit of serendipity as the coach just happened to be at an AJGA event that Ogletree won the summer before his sophomore year. “Here comes this little red head with horn-rimmed glasses,” Heppler said. “Skinny little dude. And I think, This guy is smart. He’s got to come to Georgia Tech. I was all in.”
Heppler convinced him to come to Atlanta despite growing up in a town of just 2,000. The challenge of the new environment was a motivator for Ogletree, as was playing on a squad that contended for ACC and NCAA titles.
“I never really had people to push me, had players as good as me growing up,” Ogletree said.
On Sunday at Pinehurst, Ogletree took all he'd learned over his first three years in college and used it to enjoy something he'd never experienced before on a golf course.
“I felt like the more nervous I got, the better I hit it,” Ogletree said. “For some people that takes a lot to learn, and it just kind of came with it today. You can't be put in that situation unless you've been there before. You just kind of have to learn on the fly, and it just went my way today. I learned that I can handle the pressure, I can handle the heat, and I can still perform.”
And now, Ogletree also has something to show off to his Yellow Jacket teammates, a shiny trophy that can serve as a reminder to them all that hard work mixed with big dreams can sometimes pay off.