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'Life is fixin’ to change': Ogletree goes from bagging groceries to U.S. Am champ

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PINEHURST, N.C. – U.S. Amateur champions don’t come from Little Rock, Mississippi, the no-stoplight, unincorporated community of less than 2,000 residents. It’s where the post office is housed in a trailer. Where kids go backroading for fun. Where the most happening place on a Friday night is Chesney’s Grocery & Cafe, the gas station that offers a seafood buffet with fried catfish and boiled shrimp (4 1/2 stars!).

And then along came Andy Ogletree.

Growing up in this small town he practically lived on the golf course, but to earn a little cash he worked shifts at his father’s Piggly Wiggly for $7.35 an hour. “I always told him: ‘If this doesn’t work out, you’re going to be bagging groceries the rest of your life,’” Jim Ogletree said. “He dug a little harder when I said that.”

This weekend the elder Ogletree received a call from one of his friends who had just stopped by the store. All of the customers waiting in line were glued to their phones, watching Andy bomb drives and hole clutch putts and eventually make history. 

“I don’t think he wants to do the grocery business,” Jim said with a chuckle, “and he sure ain’t going to have to now.”

No, the Georgia Tech senior’s future seems as secure as ever.

During a taut championship match at Pinehurst, Ogletree overcame a big early deficit, grabbed his first lead on the 32nd hole and hung on to capture the U.S. Amateur with a stunning 2-and-1 victory over John Augenstein.

It’ll all come the 21-year-old’s way now: The Walker Cup. The major exemptions. The early-round tee times with Tiger Woods at Augusta National. But so will the myriad distractions, the toll that’s paid when the small-town hero makes it big.

Ogletree might have lived in the middle of nowhere, but he had no shortage of golf options growing up. He learned the game at age 5 and took free lessons from Jimmy Gamblin, the former head pro at Northwood Country Club in nearby Meridian. Within a year Ogletree was competing in national tournaments, even though much of his time was spent honing his game in the family's backyard. Jim and the boys built a 200-yard practice facility by themselves, digging out a bunker and installing a parking lot light over the putting green. “I’ll always call that place home,” Andy said.

His rural upbringing didn’t stunt his development. Ogletree still won the Class AA state high school title five times, including one year by 16 shots. While playing in an AJGA tournament, he caught the attention of Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler. Onto the tee wandered this skinny redhead with horn-rimmed glasses, and then he striped a drive down the fairway. Heppler was smitten. “He looks like he’s smart and a nerd,” Heppler recalled, “and I’m going, There’s my guy. I’ve been all-in ever since.”

Not everyone was onboard with the move to the big city, however – including some of Ogletree’s own family members. After committing to Tech, Ogletree’s younger brother wrapped an arm about Heppler and whispered, half-jokingly, “You just made the biggest mistake of your life. Andy ain’t smart enough to go to school here.”

Ogletree also harbored some doubts about his own ability, comparing himself to some of the state’s more prominent players, especially in this golden age of Mississippi golf with the emergence of NCAA champion Braden Thornberry and former Alabama star Davis Riley.

“I think it hurt him at the start because he couldn’t see himself being great,” Heppler said. “I just kept telling him that we’re gonna be better than all of those guys. He didn’t see himself, and hopefully now he does. You just have to believe or you don’t have a chance.”

When the wiry Ogletree arrived on the Atlanta campus, he weighed 145 pounds and despised the weight room. Now, he’s 33 pounds heavier, with a muscular torso and thick lower body. One of his teammates recently showed him a picture from his freshman year. “I look like a different human,” he said.

His game bears little resemblance, too. Though Ogletree has always been a ball-basher, he took his game to another level during his junior season. During the fall break Heppler summoned Ogletree to a meeting and told him that, to make it on the PGA Tour, he needed to improve his short game. Drastically. So Ogletree put in the work, spending time with Jeff Patton and even receiving a tip from teammate Noah Norton that straightened out his hook putting stroke. Averaging five three-putts a tournament, Ogletree went three events in a row without a three-jack, shedding a stroke and a half off his scoring average and posting six consecutive top-15 finishes. By season’s end he was ranked inside the top 20 in the country.

This summer he won the Monroe Invitational to further bolster his confidence, but he never strayed far from his roots. Instead of playing in the Western Amateur and appeasing the USGA’s Walker Cup committee, Ogletree unwound at the Neshoba County Fair, where he crammed into a cabin with 40 to 50 family members.

The extra R&R proved helpful for what turned out to be the longest week of his career. Ogletree played a pair of practice rounds, two days of stroke play and then blew through five matches in four days. In the 36-hole championship match he faced off against Augenstein, the Vanderbilt senior who has become a match-play savant, boasting a 17-3-1 record in singles since spring 2017.

Early Sunday morning, on Pinehurst No. 4, it looked as though Ogletree might become Augenstein’s next victim. Ogletree fell 4 down through five holes, but he never lost hope. He assumed, correctly, that Augenstein’s hot start was unsustainable (even though he’d go on to shoot a course-record 65) and that his game was plenty sharp, too. Ogletree made four birdies of his own, none bigger than his 25-footer from the fringe on 18 that cut the deficit to just 2 up heading into the two-hour break.

“The whole lunch I was ready to go and ready to get back out there,” he said.

Still, Ogletree was 2 down heading to the back nine at Pinehurst No. 2, but he won the 29th hole with a par and then tied the match on the 31st after stuffing a wedge shot when he laid back on the drivable par 4.

“That definitely turned the match,” he said.

Ogletree took the lead for the first time a hole later, then preserved it with a par save on the 34th that underscored just how far he’s come. With his ball in the greenside bunker, Ogletree expertly splashed out and watched his ball trickle within 10 feet.

“I’m not sure he gets the ball on the green by himself eight months ago,” said Heppler, but Ogletree pulled it off, with thousands of people watching and the U.S. Amateur on the line.

The gutsy par save kept him in front, then he closed out the match after Augenstein made a mess of the par-3 17th.

Ogletree was unemotional for eight hours, but he finally let loose when he was mobbed on the green by his caddie/assistant coach, Devin Stanton, and family and friends.

Asked how his victory would be received in Little Rock, Ogletree smiled. “There’s no telling,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of adult beverages going down right now.”

The next year figures to be a whirlwind. Ogletree doesn’t own a passport, but he’ll head late next week to England for the Walker Cup. He’ll soon become a hot commodity for player agents and tournament directors. The Masters looms next spring. The summer Opens, too. Suddenly, his outlook looks brighter than any of the other recent Mississippi products.

“He’s really good, y’all,” Heppler said. “Looking at his skillset, it’s as good as we’ve had.”

And for Jim Ogletree, well, that’s unbelievable to hear. He's lived in teeny-tiny Little Rock his entire life. The Piggly Wiggly has been in the family business for nearly a century. His wife, Melissa, has worked as a first-grade teacher for the past 25 years, and she recently contemplated retirement.

“Probably now wishes she would have,” Jim Ogletree said. “Life is fixin’ to change.”