Players Championship 2019: Ollie Schniederjans took some big risks with his game, and the results might pay off just in time
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Ollie Schniederjans knew his game wasn't where it needed to be this past offseason. This must have been a difficult admission for the former No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, who racked up eight top 10s and three top three finishes over his first two full seasons on the PGA Tour. But while his game appeared like it was good enough to contend on the best tour in the world, he knew something was missing.
This forced Schniederjans to completely break it down, a risky endeavor when you don't see the immediate results necessary to keep your card. However, if they pay off at the right time, it makes all the tinkering, tweaking and toying worth it.
Saturday at the Players Championship is as good a time as any for everything to click, which was the case for Schniederjans on a chilly, overcast day at TPC Sawgrass. The former Georgia Tech standout went out and fired a third-round seven-under 65 at the Stadium Course, vaulting him 36 spots up the leader board and into the top five. Schniederjans made six birdies, an eagle and just one bogey, and he survived a nearly harrowing experience at the 17th, where his tee shot hung up in the wind, landed on the green and spun back towards the water.
"I hit it exactly like I wanted," said Schniederjans, who played a high draw to the front left pin. "But the wind felt like it was dying down, but as soon as my ball got up in the air, it hit it hard, and I still thought it was fine, but when I saw it land, it looked like it was about a foot over. I guess it was a little bit longer than that, but it just looked really close. I thought it was about to spin back in the water. It was a huge relief that it didn't go in."
The ball hung on, preserving one of the rounds of the week while also causing Schniederjans to place his hand over his heart, take a deep breath and have a moment with caddie Damon Green. He two-putted for par, then laced a drive down the middle at the 18th hole and closed with another par.
Schniederjans' 65 is by far the lowest round of his season, a year that has included several missed cuts and a high finish of T-33 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Through it all, Schniederjans has not been discouraged. He knew a day like this was coming.
"It's been a long grind for me and a process," he said. "But I feel like my game has felt really, really good this week. A lot has come together. The first two days were, played solid but didn't get the putts to go and didn't really score super well, but today I finally had some things go my way.
"I've made a lot of changes. Made a lot of moves over the off-season, and I've been working on my swing and made a lot of big swing changes and a lot of big changes to how I go about what I'm doing with my body and with my full swing. That's been a process, and I've had times where I feel it's in a great place, and then I've just had things come up, and I have to just kind of keep knocking things down and trying to put together sort of my little formula to be consistent."
The offseason work has been key, but Schniederjans says he came to the realization that he needed an overhaul a year and a half ago. During that same time he had finished solo second at the Wyndham Championship, and a shot he hit at the 17th hole on Sunday, a low, bullet cut with an iron, instantly went viral thanks to CBS' shot-tracer. As cool as it looked, he knew it wouldn't be effective at courses with long rough, and found that out the hard way the following week in the FedEx Cup Playoffs. He missed the cut in the first two legs, then finished 66th at the BMW Championship and failed to qualify for the Tour Championship.
To be one of the best players in the world, he knew it was time for big changes.
"These top players in the world are top-10ing half their tournaments and winning three times a year, and I didn't feel like I was in a place to play any golf course and do that, and ultimately that's the place I want to be at. So I took some risk and made some changes to put myself long-term at that level. I've learned a lot, and it's been a process, and it's just nice, obviously, to finally have a round like today and just to feel like I do about my game, to feel like I have a chance out there to go low and get in contention in big tournaments. Last year I didn't feel like that.
"I wasn't hitting it good enough. I couldn't work it both ways. I couldn't get it in the air real well. I lost a lot of speed last year. I've been number one in driving distance like three weeks in a row, so I'm obviously moving a lot better and getting my distance back, and I'm able to hit it high and low and shape it both ways."
He hasn't done it alone. On two separate occasions, once in December and once in January, Schniederjans worked on his swing with Butch Harmon, who has helped him change "everything," from how he sets up, how his body moves and how he uses his hands. He's also hired a new trainer and become more dedicated in the gym, and veteran caddie Damon Green has added a whole new element to his game.
"He's been out here for a long time, caddied for a Hall of Fame career and won majors and a bunch of tournaments out here, so obviously he's a huge asset to me. I've learned a lot from him, what him and Zach [Johnson] did, and he's been around these places a dozen times. Obviously that's a huge help to me. He's given me a lot of confidence in my decision making and judging distances and stuff like that."
It's been a long, arduous journey for Schniederjans, who sounds like he went through some difficult times to get where he is now. Speaking to Golf Digest this past November at a Callaway photo shoot, he summed it up nicely.
"This has to be the hardest, most frustrating professional sport by far. You grind as hard as you possibly can, sometime for a bunch of weeks in a row, and you might get nothing for it. I don't care who you are, you need really good coping skills in this job."
Depending on how Sunday goes, he might "get nothing," at least in the trophy case, for his effort this week either. But whatever happens, it's all part of the process.