Why the 2019 U.S. Amateur champ's return home meant so much
“I feel like I’ve left something behind,” Andy Ogletree says as he steers his Jeep Cherokee onto I-20 heading west out of Atlanta, the traffic bearable for an early Friday afternoon in November. It’s hard to figure out just what that could be, though, from a glance at the back seat, a heap of clothes, books, papers and boxes strewn door to door. And the trunk might be mistaken for a storage closet at a muny golf shop with all the gear. Even so, conscientiousness causes Ogletree to tick through an imaginary checklist until, eventually, he relents.
“Oh, well,” he says. “We have the trophy. That’s really all we need.”
Ah, yes, the trophy. That’s definitely there, sitting tall in the right back seat, shiny and golden, buckled in, shoulder harness and all, for safety. On most days, the Havemeyer Trophy that Ogletree claimed after winning the 119th U.S. Amateur Championship last August sits on a coffee table in his college apartment, he and his two roommates still catching themselves staring at the names. Now, like its owner, the trophy is settled in for a weekend road trip.
Since rallying from 4 down after five holes to beat John Augenstein, 2 and 1, in the 36-hole championship match at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort, Ogletree has started his senior year at Georgia Tech, flown to England to help the United States win the Walker Cup, competed in three college tournaments, stood on the field while being honored by his school at a Yellow Jackets football game and done dozens of media interviews. For two months, he has been pulled in countless directions except the one he longs for the most.
With the conclusion of Tech’s fall golf schedule, Ogletree finally has a window to return to Union, Miss., where four generations of his family have lived, worked, played and prayed. It’s an opportunity for the 21-year-old business major—set to graduate in May a month after he’ll play with Tiger Woods at the 2020 Masters—to say hello in person to friends and relatives, many for the first time since winning the biggest tournament of his life.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a while,” Ogletree says shortly into the drive. “I’ve got a lot of people I’d like to thank.”
It’s also a chance for the folks in Union to thank Ogletree for winning the biggest tournament of their lives, too. In the days after Ogletree’s victory, all anyone in the town of 1,988 wanted to do was brag about how one of their own became a national celebrity.
“The Monday after he won, I had kids who will never pick up a golf club talking to me about it. ‘Did you see Andy? That was awesome,’ ” says Robbie Robertson, a teacher at Leake Academy outside of Union and a freelance sportswriter who wrote about playing against the local prodigy when Andy was 8. “That’s the thing that really shocked me. Just how excited they were about it. I know these kids don’t play golf. But he’s from Mississippi. He’s from Union. That was a big deal.”
So it is that Ogletree is in for a hero’s welcome. It begins with a Mississippi trooper meeting him shortly after he crosses the state line and escorting him the final leg of the 4½-hour, 300-mile drive. The patrol car takes him past a large highway billboard, one of 10 around the state, that shows Ogletree holding the Havemeyer and congratulates him on his Amateur win.
Sirens on, lights swirling, the trooper brings Ogletree to Union’s one standalone grocery, the Piggly Wiggly owned and operated by Andy’s father, Jim. The store has been in the family since 1928. Andy worked there as a bagger in high school for $7.35 an hour—when he wasn’t off winning state golf titles. Waiting for him in the parking lot are Jim and other supporters, including Andy’s mother, Melissa, and his brothers, Eric, 19, and Colin, 18.
The next 40 hours are waves of handshakes and hugs. Later that night, Ogletree steps onto another football field, receiving a proclamation from the town before Union High’s final home game. On Saturday, Northwood Country Club, one of the courses instrumental in Ogletree’s development as a junior—and whose members sprung for the billboards—holds a luncheon in his honor. On Sunday, before driving back to school, he joins an assortment of aunts, uncles and cousins at his grandmother’s house for family brunch, a weekly tradition going back years.
“So much has happened in such a short time,” Ogletree says. “But these people were here before I won, and they’ll be here after. They’re not going away.”
Neither is he.
‘UNION GOT PUT ON THE MAP’
“Anywhere in America, if you have a small community, and one of your own had an accomplishment like this, it puts your town on the map,” says Ricky Chesney, whose family has owned Chesney Grocery & Café, a gas station in town, for 37 years. “Union got put on the map. How many people can do that?”
You’ll find Union on said map roughly 25 miles north of Meridian and 90 miles northeast of Jackson, in the central-eastern portion of Mississippi. And just how small a community is it, really? “There are no strangers,” Andy says, explaining that he doesn’t just know everybody in town but that he “can pretty much tell everyone by their car.”
If Union is small, it’s also proud. Not too long ago, according to Jim Ogletree, there were more jobs in town than people. There was a shirt factory and a glove warehouse. Lumber from Tri-C Wood was used for, among other things, building Radio Flyer wagons. Century Insulation made Styrofoam. Allied Lock produced chains and other hardware.
Jim, 55, is familiar with this because his father, Ed, along with running the Piggly Wiggly, was Union’s mayor from 1969-’81. Slowly, though, as the economy turned, the manufacturing sector waned. So did the reasons to move to Union.
However, generational families, like the Ogletrees, remained. Jim took over the grocery in 1986 and got married in 1994 to Melissa, who grew up in nearby Philadelphia and has her immediate family still in the area. Soon came the three boys.
With Andy being the oldest, it might be expected he would one day take over the grocery, but he had other ideas. He played his first golf tournament when he was 5, a qualifier for the U.S. Kids World Championship. He finished second and knew how he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
“I like being in control,” Andy says when asked what it was about golf that hooked him. “I like the weight on your shoulders, the adrenaline rush. I just think there is nothing like it.”
Jim didn’t hold back in encouraging his sons’ interest (Eric and Colin played from an early age, too) when he built a golf hole beside a 75-acre lake behind their house.
As the boys got older, maintaining the hole (complete with a bunker) became their responsibility. They bought a green mower on eBay and sent grass samples to learn what fertilizers would work best. “It was as good a hole as you’d find on a course,” Jim says with pride. Conveniently, the yard was big enough for the hole to grow with his sons, allowing them to hit 200-yard shots.
Important, too, was the streetlight that sat over the green, allowing the Ogletrees to play well past sunset. “We’d be out there all hours,” Eric says. “A lot of times it would be midnight, and Mom finally had to come out and make us come in. Andy especially.”
Starting in high school, Andy gave up basketball and football to concentrate on golf. For a full round, he’d play at Northwood, or at Dancing Rabbit, a casino/resort course 25 miles away, or hop over to Union Golf Course, a nine-hole muny that Jim says once had an airplane runway between two holes.
The hard work paid off. Andy won the state AA individual title five times, including in 2016 by 16 strokes. That same year, Andy’s senior season, he, Eric and Colin were Nos. 1-2-3 on the Union boys’ team that won the state team title.
Everyone in town knew of Andy’s golf talent, most assuming he would stay near home for college and play at Ole Miss, his father’s alma mater. But that changed when Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler spotted Ogletree at a summer junior tournament in 2013.
“I’m watching, and here comes this little redhead with horn-rimmed glasses, skinny little dude,” Heppler recalls. “And I think, This guy is probably smart. He’s got to come to Georgia Tech. And he striped one down the fairway, and he won the tournament. And I’m going, There’s my guy. I was all in.”
Going to Tech was no easy decision for Ogletree, whose high-school graduating class was just 62. About half went to college, Andy says, many at East Central Community College in Decatur. Everybody in Union knew of Andy, but that wouldn’t be the case in Atlanta, where his reputation as the driven golfer wouldn’t precede him—or protect him.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” says Ogletree, despite naysayers convinced he’d made a bad decision, the screen saver on his phone helping speak to his usual mind-set: Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t.
“It was a big deal for him to leave,” says Wilkins Thames, a classmate in Union who lives and works in the area and is among Ogletree’s closest friends. “But golf is what Andy was always going to be about. He had to go.”
‘A BREAK FROM ALL THE NEGATIVE’
When Ogletree arrives at Union High on a chilly Friday night ahead of the ceremony in his honor, Thames is there to greet him. They’re joined by another Union buddy, Walker Kelly, and soon it’s as if they’re back in high school ... except for the receiving line that forms around them, folks hoping to grab a second with Andy. “Got to say hi to the legend,” says one passerby, Ogletree embarrassed but appreciative.
“He’s never bragged about himself much,” Thames says. “We were always the ones doing that for him.”
The reception is similar, albeit a bit more formal, the next day at Northwood, the 80-some people attending more elders than peers. Andy says a few words, expressing his gratitude for everything they’ve done, before giving everyone a chance to stare at the names on the Havemeyer.
“The whole weekend, that’s the one I was most nervous about because I knew I had to give a speech,” Ogletree says.
When lunch ends, Ogletree heads to the course, connecting with Tony Ruggiero, his instructor since 2015, who drove from his home in Mobile, Ala. It’s the first time since Pinehurst that Ogletree has worked face to face with Ruggiero. “I need some fixin’,” Ogletree says. “Haven’t had time to practice like I’d like.” Ruggiero watches him play a handful of holes, not too concerned by what he sees.
Inside Northwood’s clubhouse, Melissa, who teaches first grade in Union, reflects on everything that has happened. She wasn’t supposed to be at Pinehurst, but at the beach for a vacation with Colin. But Andy called her during match play and convinced her to change plans. “It’s been exciting to see the things that he has dreamed of since he was a little boy actually materializing in front of your eyes,” she says. “The things he always said he wanted to do, but you thought, Hmm. Yeah, that’s great, but in the back of your mind you’re really thinking, OK, that’s a really big expectation.”
Her joy is colored, in part, with the satisfaction for what she believes Andy’s win has been able to provide the town.
“Happiness,” Melissa says. “A break from all the negative. It’s kind of nice to have something that’s positive going around in town instead of somebody else talking about somebody else.”
So how badly did Union need something like this? “Everywhere needs something like this,” she says.
The good news is that as the memory of summer and Pinehurst fades, the coming of spring and the Masters will restore the buzz. After Ogletree won the Amateur, Chesney bought tickets for Thursday and Friday at Augusta National on StubHub, as did others close to the Ogletrees. “I still need a place to stay,” Chesney says. “Worst case, I grab the floor [at Jim and Melissa’s rental].”
Ogletree will be back in Union before then, certainly around Christmas, but his visits are likely to become less frequent. After the Masters and graduation, he will turn pro and start chasing a tour card. He’ll be focused on moving on, building a life elsewhere. Of course, that’s what he’s been doing for a long time. It’s why he went to Georgia Tech, and why he spent all those nights practicing behind his house under the streetlight.
Early Sunday afternoon, fueled on grandma’s fried chicken, Ogletree re-packs the Jeep Cherokee, trophy secure in the back seat once more. He says goodbye to his loved ones and waves as he pulls away, heading toward I-20 east and a return to the craziness of his post-Pinehurst life. As home becomes smaller in the rearview mirror, the young man driving can take solace in this: There’s one thing Andy Ogletree will never leave behind, no matter where he goes. And that’s Union.
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