Balicki: A thrilling U.S. Collegiate finish
ALPARETTA, Ga. - Over the last 30 years, I’ve watched my fair share of college tournaments and the players who make up the game. I’ve seen a lot of great shots and plenty of exciting and thrilling finishes.
Last Sunday, in the final round of the U.S. Collegiate Championship on the Lakeside course at the Golf Club of Georgia, I witnessed yet another in this line. It was a shot and a finish that I would say ranks among my top three best - and right now I can’t even think of the other two.
The shot: a cut 5-iron from 220 yards out to a water-guarded green at the par-5 18th hole.
The player: Georgia Tech sophomore Ollie Schniederjans, who was hitting his second shot playing in the last group of the day.
The result: the ball came to rest 3 feet above the hole, where Schniederjans would sink the eagle putt and give host team Tech a one-stroke, come-from-behind victory over UCLA.
What added to the dramatic setting was the partisan Yellow Jackets crowd that filled the skyboxes around the 18th green and those who stood shoulder-to-shoulder below on the hill.
Quite the shot; quite the finish; quite the scene.
Schniederjans’ finish completed a back-nine charge during which the Yellow Jackets, No. 17 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings going into the tournament, erased an eight-shot deficit against the ninth-ranked Bruins. It gave Tech a bit of redemption for its collapse a year ago when the Yellow Jackets lost a seven-stroke lead to UCLA over the last nine holes and finished fourth.
“We were six or seven shots down, and at some point you just figure it’s not going to happen,” Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler said. “But we hung and hung. I guess they (UCLA) made some mistakes to come back to the field a little bit. Ollie hit it to a foot on 16 (for birdie), and Anders (Albertson) made a birdie somewhere in there to get us close.”
Then, when UCLA’s Jake Knapp birdied the 18th hole and Albertson made par, the Yellow Jackets appeared to be resigned to a runner-up finish, trailing by two with two groups left on the course.
But Seth Reeves, coming off a three-putt bogey at the par-3 17th, made a difficult up-and-down for birdie at the finishing hole to cut the margin to one.
By this time, the Bruins had their four counting scores as Anton Arboleda, among the leaders after the first two rounds, was on his way to a closing 85.
That set the stage for Schniederjans.
“Ollie hit his shot in the hazard at 17, but it stayed up and he made par, which was pretty fortunate,” Heppler said. “He hit that incredible 5-iron in there at 18, and that’s about as good as it gets.”
Schniederjans said he knew exactly how things stood as he played the final hole.
“I knew I needed birdie to tie and eagle to win,” he said. “I was in between clubs (for his second shot) and I went with the longer club because I wanted to hit a cut shot in there. I didn’t hit it exactly like I drew it up in my head, but when I hit it, I knew it was going to end up perfect. Actually, I thought it was even closer than 3 feet. With all those people out there around the 18th green watching, that was the coolest hole I’ve ever played.
“I’ve hit some pretty clutch shots in the past, but with the team pressure, playing in the last group of the day, with all those fans out there in the skyboxes around the green, that shot was as good as it gets,” Schniederjans said immediately after signing his scorecard.
“It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “This will last me forever. It’s a dream come true. Right now, I’m freaked-out excited.”
As far as the winning eagle putt, Schniederjans said, “It was 3 feet, but it looked like 8 feet to me. It was downhill, and I barely touched the ball. When it got about 6 inches from the hole, I knew it was in. I can’t tell you the feeling I had when it dropped into the hole, and with all those people screaming and cheering. It was amazing.”
For Heppler and Tech, it was the second victory of the fall season, the first being a tie for the championship at the Ping/Golfweek Preview at the nearby Crabapple course at Capital City Club. In between, the Yellow Jackets placed second at the Brickyard in Macon, Ga.
“California hasn’t lost yet, and we went tooth-and-nail with them at the Preview,” Heppler said. “We could have played better at the Brickyard, but overall I couldn’t expect much more. We’re still trying to figure out who we are and who the five best players on this team are. We have a pretty deep group of guys, and from day to day, it changes.”
The last three showings came after a disappointing 11th-place finish at the season-opening Carpet Capital Classic, for which Tech also was the host team. Here, Tech never was able to overcome an opening-round 301 score.
“What a nice way to end our fall season,” Heppler said. “This is such a great tournament, and the field is one of the strongest you’ll find anywhere. Other than winning the national championship and the conference championship, winning here is very special.
“And the way it all unfolded this year, you couldn’t ask for anything better,” Heppler said. “To hear all those roars around the 18th green and to have so many people come out to support us, it doesn’t get too much better than that.”
Well, coach, you certainly won’t get any argument about that from this veteran scribe!