Golfweek: `Why Rush It?'
Ollie Schniederjans, the top-ranked collegian, delays turning pro and returns to Georgia Tech with one mantra: Win
2014 Golfweek college preview
Re-posted from the Sept. 5 edition of Golfweek magazine
At the U.S. Amateur in August, enough agents circled Ollie Schniederjans, the No. 1 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, to form a quorum. As a matter of fact, one suitor missed celebrating his wedding anniversary in order to evaluate the Georgia Tech senior and let his presence be known. As Bo Andrews, a former teammate of Schniederjans', put it, "Everyone and his mother want to sign him."
They'd better take a number. Schniederjans (pronounced SHNY-derjannz) is the best remaining pro prospect of what could have been the most highly-touted senior class in men's college golf in recent memory. One by one, Jordan Spieth from Texas, Justin Thomas from Alabama and, most recently, Patrick Rodgers, who bolted Stanford in June in time to qualify for the Web.com Tour Finals, have opted for the play-for-pay ranks. Schniederjans, a homegrown product from the Atlanta suburbs, is taking the long view and bucking the trend by returning for his fourth year.
"I'm only 21, and I plan to play this game for a long time," he said. "Why rush it? This way I'll have this whole year to kind of get organized."
Schniederjans seemed to be on a fast track, graduating from high school a semester early and enrolling at Georgia Tech in January 2011. He arrived with a glittering resume, including victories at the AJGA's 2009 Polo Golf Junior Classic, a spot on the 2010 U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team and as high as No. 2 in the AJGA Polo Golf Rankings. (Some hotshot named Spieth occupied No. 1.) But even with a semester to adjust to college life, Schniederjans struggled as a freshman, averaging 72.79 . In fact, coach Bruce Heppler's prized recruit was relegated to a playoff with teammate Seth Reeves for the final spot on the post-season roster. It seemed like a good time for Heppler to sit Schniederjans down for a pep talk.
"I was going to look like a real moron," Heppler said. "I've got the No. 2 recruit in the country, and he can't even make my team. Ollie looked at me and said, `Coach, I appreciate it, but the reality is whether I play in this tournament or not, I'm going to play the PGA Tour.' That's vision. I didn't see that as arrogance. He's made up his mind that's where he's going to end up, and he has an unyielding belief that he is going to be out there."
Schniederjans won the playoff and improved his scoring average to 71.31 as a sophomore, when he earned third-team All-America honors. His consistency had improved, but victory eluded him. As Schniederjans prepped for his junior season, Reeves remembers Schniederjans telling teammates that he was on the verge of a breakthrough: "There's still one thing I'm working on, but once I get it, guys, look out. Everything feels that good."
Schniederjans made good on his word, sharing medalist honors at his season debut, the Carpet Capital Collegiate at The Farm Golf Club in Rocky Face, Ga. Victory was the validation that he needed.
"I learned that I didn't have to play my best to win. I don't have to play even close to perfect," he said. "If I do everything right, I can win by 10 shots. When I figured that out, I was like, `Shoot, I can win a ton of these,' and I did."
As a junior he lowered his scoring average to 69.51, the second-best in school history, behind only Bryce Molder's 69.43 in 2000-01, and set a season school record with five victories, shattering a mark shared by David Duval, Stewart Cink and Troy Matteson. Schniederjans was a finalist for the Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus awards.
With rumors swirling that Schniederjans would turn pro, he considered this soul-searching question: Where could he grow more as a golfer - in college or as a pro?
To help Schniederjans determine his answer, Heppler posed a question of his own.
"What's one of the hardest things to do on Tour?" he asked.
"Close out a 54-hole lead," Schniederjans said.
Heppler suggested that Schniederjans would benefit more from learning to play with a bull's-eye on his back in college than serving an apprenticeship on the Web.com Tour.
"What he will feel at the start of a college tournament is what Rory McIlroy will feel on Thursday at Augusta," Heppler said. "All you can do is mess it up. All you can do is fail. You're supposed to be the guy. He is going to be a favorite every time he tees it up. That will be valuable when he plays the Tour. Because Ollie doesn't want to just play the Tour; he wants to be special when he gets out there."
Schniederjans took the conversation to heart and told his coach that he would think about it. There are other factors he considered too, such as his desire to earn his degree and remain close to his family. One brother, Ben, is a sophomore at Georgia Tech and pitches for the baseball team . The youngest of the three, Luke, a junior in high school, recorded his first AJGA top-10 finish this year. Shortly before NCAA regionals, Schniederjans weighed his options and his decision pivoted on this realization: What if he were to win the individual national championship and Georgia Tech take the team title? Or he did "something ridiculous over the summer," such as win a Tour event or finish top-5 at the U.S. Open? How would he go back to school?
"I decided, you know what, that would be awesome," he said. "I came to terms with no matter what happens, I am coming back, and it kind of freed me up to play like I did at the end of the year."
Schniederjans finished runner-up at the NCAA Raleigh Regional and in the NCAA individual championship, where he lost a three-hole playoff to Stanford's Cameron Wilson. When Matthew Fitzpatrick, the 2013 U.S. Amateur champion, and Rodgers turned pro earlier this summer, Schniederjans vaulted to No. 1 in amateur golf. As the winner of the Mark H. McCormack Medal , Schniederjans receives an invitation to the 2015 U.S. Open and the Open Championship, provided he remains an amateur.
Some wondered whether Schniederjans might have second thoughts about his decision after finishing in a share of fifth place at the Web.com Tour's Air Capital Classic and tying for 41st at the European Tour's Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open . But like Matt Kuchar, another Georgia Tech star who came back to graduate, Schniederjans remains as confident in his decision as he is in his future success. (He also is following in Kuchar's footsteps by dating a member of Tech's women's tennis team.)
"Jordan Spieth is a top-10 player on the planet right now. I don't think he's better than me," Schniederjans said. "So I'm ready. In my head, I'm ready."