ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The first thing you notice about Ollie Schniederjans is the hair.
The familiar dome of dark brown, lush enough to allow the 27-year-old to play without a hat for his entire professional career, is nowhere to be seen. He’s still hat-free this week at the Korn Ferry Tour’s King & Bear Classic, but the top is noticeably shorter and the back and sides have been buzzed.
“Chopped it all off about a week ago,” Schniederjans explained. “It’s never been this short, but I didn’t know if I wanted to go to some spot on the road. So I just went ahead and got it chopped so I don’t have to worry about it for a while.”
A three-month break from competition can lead to myriad changes, both external and beneath the surface. An unexpected halt in the season came at an inopportune time for some, and for budding KFT stars it means their PGA Tour aspirations are on hold for at least another year. But for guys like Schniederjans, an opportunity to reach for the reset button was a welcome one.
As one of the top collegiate players during his time at Georgia Tech, Schniederjans was viewed as a promising prospect upon turning pro in 2015. He won a Korn Ferry event the following year, beating a young amateur named Collin Morikawa in a playoff, and in 2017 he went toe-to-toe with Henrik Stenson at the Wyndham Championship, ultimately losing by a shot. Just last year, he was in the hunt at The Players before a watery triple on the 71st hole dropped him from fifth place to T-16.
But it’s been all downhill since Schniederjans left TPC Sawgrass 15 months ago. He hasn’t finished inside the top 25 since, and he lost his PGA Tour card in the process. In fact, his meager Korn Ferry status wasn’t good enough to earn a start in last week’s return to competition, so he instead spent three days toiling at an Unbridled Tour event just down the road. This week he was the last man in the field, and the tournament’s Wednesday start meant he had less than 48 hours to learn this week’s host course at the World Golf Village.
Schniederjans spent his quarantine nursing a torn oblique muscle back to health, an injury he sustained in Panama in February and one from which he tried to return prematurely in March. But the break also gave him a chance to look inward, assess where things have gone awry in recent months and attempt to make amends.
“I started hitting it real bad and searching, trying a lot of stuff. You can’t compete on the PGA Tour when you’re not hitting it straight,” Schniederjans said after opening with a 3-under 69. “When you’re searching tee-to-green, all your energy goes to that and you can kind of slip mentally. Then my putting started to slip on top of that, so it was just a pile of events.”
The break offered a similar period of reflection for Justin Lower. The 30-year-old has endured personal tragedy en route to becoming a pro, losing both his brother and father in a 2005 car crash, and earlier this year his mind had become clouded. He missed four straight cuts before the pandemic hit and was bordering on a tailspin.
“I was in a pretty bad place before the break, honestly,” Lower said. “My last two tournaments, Sarasota and Mexico, I felt very sad for my playing partners, just the way I was acting on the golf course. … I was just letting my mind just wander way too much, and I would start freaking out at the first sign of trouble.”
Lower declined to discuss specifics, other than to say he and his wife worked together on “trying to better myself as a person.” But he relished an opportunity to spend extra time at home in Ohio, dropped 12 pounds from his 175-pound frame and immediately found results. He finished 22nd last week at TPC Sawgrass, his best result since the season opener, and fired a 7-under 65 Wednesday to sit two shots off the early lead.
“Obviously this is a tough game, and you can only make it tougher on yourself,” Lower said. “I just tried to treat the break as an opportunity. Obviously a tough time for our country and the world, but I just tried to better myself as much as I could and kind of go from there.”
Lower’s opening score left him two shots behind Brett Coletta, who set a new competitive course record with a 9-under 63. Coletta’s 2019 Korn Ferry campaign was a shining example of feast or famine, as he finished T-4 or better in three different events. Normally a trio of such high results ensures a promotion, but the young Aussie also missed 13 cuts in 22 starts and ultimately missed out on a PGA Tour card. When the new season began in January, his form had not materialized: three missed cuts and a mid-tournament withdrawal, with only one score in the 60s.
Coletta spent the quarantine back home in Australia, where federal guidelines meant no golf for two straight months. Instead, he took a step back and shifted his focused elsewhere. He pursued some hobbies, swapping a jet ski he and his brother owned for a car into which he poured some elbow grease. But he also worked on his mental game with swing coach Marty Joyce, pinpointing areas where the 23-year-old would sometimes get ahead of himself inside the ropes.
“I was just getting impatient. I think we all might have it to a degree,” Coletta said. “We just get impatient, and if the results aren’t there from the first few events you start to panic a little bit. And then you start crunching the numbers, and points, and then money comes into it. So it was good for me. It was therapeutic.”
Ascent through the ranks without interruption is reserved for very few. Most will endure setbacks and hardship, even the ones that eventually make it to the game’s upper echelon. For some on the Korn Ferry Tour, the timing of the circuit’s hiatus served as an opportunity to address a variety of physical and mental concerns. Now back to work, they are hoping to put the lessons learned to good use – even if the nearest promotion still lies 15 months away.
“I’m still happy I went through it, because I think I’ve learned what really matters and what doesn’t matter in my golf swing,” Schniederjans said. “Now when I get a little off, I’m able to quickly address it and not go down any rabbit holes. I think I’m in the best place I’ve been with my game.”