News & Opinion

Small-town kid lives big-time dream

U.S. Amateur champion Andy Ogletree’s hometown is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting

PINEHURST, N.C. – U.S. Amateur champion Andy Ogletree’s hometown is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Little Rock, Miss., is so small – population less than 2,000 – that it is an unincorporated community out in the country, with no stoplight, its post office housed in a trailer and its gas station featuring a seafood buffet on Friday nights.

“Yeah, food is incredible,” said Ogletree, who recommends the fried catfish and the boiled shrimp at Chesney’s Grocery.

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Andy Ogletree wins the Havemeyer Trophy after he defeated John Augenstein for the U.S. Amateur title at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort.

© USGA/CHRIS KEANE
Andy Ogletree wins the Havemeyer Trophy after he defeated John Augenstein for the U.S. Amateur title at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort.

Ogletree, a 21-year-old senior at Georgia Tech, overcame a 4-down deficit after five holes at Pinehurst No. 4 in the scheduled 36-hole final, but rallied in the afternoon session at Pinehurst No. 2 to defeat John Augenstein, 2 and 1, in an All-American finale (scores).

Ogletree may have grown up in rural Mississippi, some 80 miles east of Jackson, but his father, Jim, built a practice area in the family’s yard replete with a bunker and greens where young Andy eventually could hit 200-yard shots.

“It was always a chore as kids to cut the green,” Ogletree said.

The practice area also included a floodlight. Under the tutelage of Jimmy Gamblin, the PGA professional at Northwood Country Club in Meridian, Ogletree developed a game that attracted college coaches. Bruce Heppler, the men’s coach at Georgia Tech, still remembers the first time he saw Ogletree, at an AJGA tournament in Georgia as a 15-year-old sophomore in high school.

“They put all 120 kids off the first tee – you can stand there and watch the whole field tee off – and this little old redhead comes up. He’s got the whole horn-rimmed glasses, and he looks like he’s smart and a nerd, and I’m going, There’s my guy,” Heppler said. “He pipes it down the middle, he won the tournament, and I’ve been all-in ever since.”

Like Mr. Smith going to Washington, Ogletree, whose father owns a Piggly Wiggly grocery and whose mother is a first-grade teacher, went off to the big city of Atlanta and Georgia Tech, where he became all-Atlantic Coast Conference golfer this season. His breakthrough this summer was winning the Monroe Invitational. But at No. 120 in World Amateur Golf Ranking as of Aug. 14, he likely had to run the table to earn a spot on the U.S. Walker Cup team.

“I guess you could say I didn’t think I had a chance when I got here, but after Saturday afternoon [semifinal victory], I thought I did because my swing felt good again,” Ogletree said.

Nor did he chase it. Ogletree skipped the Western Amateur a few weeks ago to attend the Neshoba County Fair, nicknamed “Mississippi’s Giant House Party.” He has made his way in the big city, but he still loves coming home.

“For us, it’s a huge family reunion and it’s the time that all our families get together and they stay for a week,” said Jim Ogletree, noting that 40 extended family members participated.

That week proved to be a reset for Ogletree, who survived nine rounds in seven days to be champion. But on the first 18 at Pinehurst No. 4, Augenstein, a Vanderbilt senior and match-play specialist with a 17-3-1 record in singles since spring 2017, built a 4-up lead after five holes and shot a course-record 5-under 65. Ogletree cut the deficit to 2 down with a birdie at 18 to take some momentum into the afternoon round at Pinehurst No. 2. He tied the match at the 31st hole, took the lead one hole later, and made a clutch up-and-down par from the left greenside bunker to halve the 34th hole of the match.

Ogletree always has been known for driving it long and straight and being precise with his irons, but his short game was lacking. Through hard work and tenacity, Ogletree has made great strides. Asked where his bunker shot would have ended up nine months ago, before Heppler gave him some tough love about what he needed to do to improve, Ogletree said, “Either long or short. It wouldn’t have been where it was, probably.”

One hole later, after Augenstein took four putts at the par 3 17th, Ogletree hugged the Havemeyer Trophy. If tradition holds true – and there’s no reason to expect that it will not – as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, the small-town kid likely will be paired with reigning Masters champion Tiger Woods for the first two rounds of the Masters. Ogletree also secured a spot on the Walker Cup team that will travel to Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England, for the Sept. 7-8 match. From Little Rock to Royal Liverpool.

Only one problem: Ogletree doesn’t have a passport.

“Oh, that’s not good,” he said. “I’m glad you reminded me.”

The USGA is already on the case, so Mr. Ogletree can go to England.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak