Mississippi amateur makes golf history

By CHARLIE SMITH,

Jack Nicklaus famously holds the record for winning the most professional golf majors with 18. However, Nicklaus has often said he considers himself to have won 20 majors because of his two U.S. Amateur victories.

That’s because the tournament is one of the toughest in the world to claim, even without the best professionals eligible. Spanning seven long days, it starts with two rounds of stroke play where the top 64 players advance to match play. Then it’s mano-a-mano for six rounds with the loser going home each time.

The final takes place over a grueling 36 holes, which was considered the fairest standard for deciding important tournaments but has fallen out of favor, not because it’s no longer the best way to determine the best golfer, but because it generally takes too long for TV. The U.S. Amateur, which perhaps holds most strongly to the game’s traditions, still retains that cherished format, though.

All of that is to say it was quite an accomplishment Sunday when Andy Ogletree became the first Mississippi native to win our nation’s amateur championship. The respect earned by that victory is clearly seen in the spoils, which although not monetary in nature, are among the greatest in a golfer’s eyes: Invitations to next year’s Masters and U.S. Open.

The Union High School graduate is a rising senior at Georgia Tech, where he joins two of the sports’s greats, Bobby Jones and Matt Kuchar, as the only students from that university to claim the U.S. Amateur.

And Ogletree, whose father owns a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in central Mississippi’s Newton County, did it in a gritty and inspiring way on the famed Pinehurst links of North Carolina.

He lost four of the first five holes to John Augenstein, a Vanderbilt senior. That’s a deficit that would break the spirit of many golfers – or at least incite a rage that rendered them incapable of playing successfully for the remainder of the day (anyone who has played golf at all will know what I’m talking about there).

But Ogletree, a tall, lean young man with glasses and the big forearms often found on scratch players, battled back. He cut the deficit to two after the first 18 holes and took his first lead at the 32nd hole.

But it looked like he might give it back on the 34th hole. Ogletree drove into one of Pinehurst’s famous sandy waste areas, then hit his approach shot into a greenside bunker. He wedged out to about 10 feet. Talk about a nervous putt with a national TV audience watching and the most important championship of your life hanging in the balance. The Fox cameras showed a green-level view, and the roll was dead-center all the way. If you’re scoring at home, that’s what we call a “double sandy,” making a par despite hitting it into two bunkers on the same hole.

And the difficulty of that putt on the super-slick greens was evident in how the match ended: Augenstein four-putted the 35th green to lose 2&1 (two holes down with just one hole to play).

It was a great win for Ogletree and his home state. When you’re a small place like Mississippi with such a history of difficulties, when one of our own triumphs it’s something that we all celebrate. Even if you’re not a golf fan, all Mississippians can take pride in what Ogletree accomplished.

And it’s not over yet: He’ll get to share his story on an even grander stage in April when the eyes of the country’s and world’s golfers – and even many casual-at-best golf fans – turn to the Masters. According to tradition, he’ll be paired in the first two rounds with the defending champion, who happens to be Tiger Woods, the man second to Nicklaus with 15 professional majors (18 if you count Woods’ three U.S. Amateurs).

Not bad for a small-town Mississippi guy.

Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him at (601) 736-2611 or csmith@columbianprogress.com.

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