BRADENTON, Fla. – Ollie Schniederjans knew what to expect his senior year of college. He wishes he’d handled it better.
The relentless hype and the world’s No. 1 ranking … the distractions of lining up representation and sponsorship and a place to live … the anxiousness watching his early-20s peers – his friends – win a major and cash huge checks and boost their profile … the soul-searching and the frustration … the sit-down meeting and the humbling discoveries … and then, finally, the recommitment to what got him here.
Schniederjans braced himself for a year unlike any other, and he still was flattened by it.
“You never know how somebody is going to react when the light is on,” Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler said. “You can’t hide anymore. And by staying in school, he was the guy.”
A lot has transpired since last year’s NCAA Championship, when Schniederjans rolled into Prairie Dunes with five wins in his last six starts, and then lost in a playoff at nationals.
His profile couldn’t get any higher. Fair or not, his senior year could only disappoint, unless he won six times or swept every postseason award. He was set up to fail.
Last spring was exhilarating, but it also was exhausting. Burned out over the summer, he played in only a pair of amateur events as he tried to conserve energy for what was ahead. After all, he had returned to school, in part, to experience what it was like to be the No. 1 player on the planet, to enter every tournament as the favorite, to be nitpicked to death if or when the wins stopped coming with regularity.
“You have to be mentally strong to handle that,” Heppler said, “because it’s a whole lot easier to climb the mountain than to stay there.”
PLAYING WITH THAT LEVEL of expectation can’t be taught on the Web.com circuit. It’s learned only during a year in the spotlight.
There were warning signs in the fall that this would be a trying year. There was the internal and external pressure, sure, but Schniederjans’ long game, his most trusted asset, started to betray him, too. Even though he won his first start and had top-sixes in his other four tournaments, he wasn’t in control. He was “bomb-spraying it,” and once he played a demanding course he knew he’d get exposed.
His game was sagging, senioritis was kicking in, the number of off-course distractions was increasing, and he felt the tug of everyone – agents, equipment reps, friends, family, media.
“It was a slow boil,” Tech assistant coach Brennan Webb said. “You could feel it coming. He was a different guy.”
“When you’re in control of your game,” Schniederjans says, “you can handle that, but this year it was definitely a lot to handle. Very frustrating. And when you get frustrated you start to think about what other people think and the unrealistic expectations. But if your game isn’t there, it’s just not going to happen.
“Golf was always my safe haven and so under control, and it felt so foreign to me.”
And the more he struggled, the more he pulled away from the team.
Heppler gave Schniederjans plenty of autonomy, more than he’s given any player in his nearly 30-year coaching career, and maybe that was a mistake. Instead of allowing Schniederjans to sort out his career options away from school, maybe, Heppler says, he should have reined him in, made him more a part of the day-to-day process, kept him from drifting away.
“It’s like the horse in the Kentucky Derby that keeps running into the gate,” Heppler said. “It was like, 'Let me go run, let me go run.'”
Georgia Tech golf? No, Schniederjans wasn’t much interested in it anymore, not like he was his first three years, anyway. He shut down, checked out, closed himself off, and it got to a point where he didn’t want to participate in team workouts or attend the Yellow Jacket Celebration, activities he had loved for five years.
“I was done with it,” he said.
The pro stuff was overwhelming, with so many details and decisions, and the temptation was never greater. On TV every weekend Schniederjans saw Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas and Patrick Rodgers – all close friends, all part of that vaunted high school Class of 2011 – making an impact on Tour.
And he was the one star who chose to stay back.
“It made me really antsy,” Schniederjans said. “I know for sure, 100 percent, that if I’m playing well I can do the exact same thing. It doesn’t change my belief.”
But reaching that level of excellence has seemed unattainable at times this spring.
He missed the cut at the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship in March, when his ball-striking disappeared, and he didn’t fare much better a few weeks later at a college event at The Floridian. He failed to break par all three rounds, closed with 82 and finished 17 over par, in a tie for 63rd (out of 73), his worst performance since his second college start.
“When you get it back, you wonder why it was ever so hard,” he said. “And then when it’s hard, you wonder why it was ever so easy. You can’t explain it. It’s just a place you’re in.”
Heppler had seen enough, so he called a meeting in his office. He wanted to revisit the reasons why Schniederjans even came back to school.
Because he wanted to be under the microscope.
Because he wanted to help the young players (two freshmen) on the team.
Because he wanted to give back to the program.
Because he wanted to make sure the team didn’t fall off the map, having lost three seniors from the 2013-14 squad.
They discussed all of that, and at the end Heppler asked him: How have you done in those areas?
“Terrible,” Schniederjans replied.
He was stressed out. He wasn’t having fun. He felt like he had to be perfect, that his entire life depended one swing and one result. And he wasn’t helping the younger players, mostly because he wasn’t around.
“At that moment,” he said, “I basically rejoined the team. It was like I was a freshman again.”
THE PRO STUFF? It's not going anywhere – he passed it off for his mom to handle. Now he’s engaged with the team. He’s here. He’s present.
He’s smarter, too, because he hasn’t been tested like this since his turbulent freshman year.
More than learning how to cope with poor performances, he has learned about himself, about who truly cares about him, about what he’s susceptible to, what he needs to avoid as a pro.
“Getting out of the present, caring too much about what other people think,” he said. “When you think you’re invincible, that’s when you’re in trouble. And I think I thought I was invincible when my game was under control. That’s when it all fell apart. It’s humbling.”
In many ways, this year felt like his first out of college.
Many college players leave school when their stock is at its highest, then have unrealistic expectations for their games and fail. Schniederjans, though, isn’t making the leap to professional golf on a tear.
“I don’t feel like I’ll put too much pressure on myself going out,” he said.
“I don’t know if he’s as confident as he was a year ago,” Heppler said. “I don’t think he’s as self-assured. That’s just the nature of it.”
But these past few months, the team has seen signs of the old Ollie.
At NCAA regionals in San Diego, he stood in the 18th fairway with only a 7-iron left into the finishing par 5. He asked how the team stood.
“We’re fine,” Webb said, and he added that Schniederjans needed a birdie for another top-seven, an eagle for a top-five.
“I’ve had plenty of top-seven finishes in my life,” he said. “I just want to make sure that the team is fine.”
That reply brought a smile to Webb’s face, after he had watched his star player lose his way over the past few months, when he seemed to care only about keeping his No. 1 amateur ranking and earning Player of the Year and winning the Hogan Award.
“That’s not why he’s here or why he came back,” Webb said.
Through three rounds here at Concession, Schniederjans is tied for 36th. Not great by his lofty standards, and a few months ago that would have sent himinto a tailspin. Now, a few minutes after signing his card, he’s back to laughing with his teammates, back to being the guy everyone likes to be around.
This isn’t to suggest that Schniederjans has been awful this season. His last four starts entering NCAAs: sixth, third, fourth and seventh. In fact, he’s still ranked ninth in the country, and he’s finished in the top seven in 11 of his last 13 college events (and 21 of his last 25).
“So I haven’t been a complete piece of crap this year,” he said, smiling. “I haven’t had a complete meltdown.”
Indeed, Schinederjans’ best stuff is still better than any other player’s at this level. During the second round, on the 580-yard 17th, he hit a pair of towering 2-irons, the latter stopping on a dime, about 15 feet away.
“That’s the first Ollie shot I’ve seen in a while,” Webb said.
After years of going it alone, Schniederjans wants another set of eyes. He looks forward to working more with swing coach Sean Foley, whom he has seen a few times over the past six months. Now down to No. 8 in the world, he still has exemptions into both summer Opens, and he plans to turn pro after St. Andrews. After that he hopes to play four events on sponsor exemptions, and then get a fresh slate of seven invites for the 2015-16 Tour season.
Depending on his team’s position, his college career may wrap up today at Concession. He’s inarguably one of the best players in school history, with six wins and a stack of awards. More important are his life lessons after a year in the spotlight.
“I realized that, at the end of the day, I just want to play well,” he said. “Nothing is more fun than the feeling when you walk off the course and think, Wow, that was a good round of golf. I’m getting back to that.”