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OAKMONT, Pa. – Georgia Tech head coach Bruce Heppler was closely monitoring the situation at Oakmont Country Club from back in Atlanta. His incoming transfer Ross Steelman had won again, and Heppler was one more Steelman victory from booking a plane ticket.
For Heppler, it’s a familiar feeling. He has coached three previous U.S. Amateur champions: Matt Kuchar, back in 1997, and then each of the past two Havemeyer Trophy winners, Andy Ogletree and Tyler Strafaci.
“I’ll take all this déjà vu I can get,” Heppler said. “It’s really cool stuff.”
The Yellow Jackets’ three-peat is still alive thanks to Steelman, fresh off a stellar sophomore season at Missouri, advancing to Friday afternoon’s quarterfinals with a 3-and-2 victory over Florida junior Ricky Castillo, a former Phil Mickelson Award winner and recent Walker Cupper. He will now play North Carolina’s Austin Greaser.
Steelman, who was well-rested after wrapping up his Round-of-16 match before the horn blew for inclement weather Thursday evening, hung with Castillo early after losing the first hole, never trailing by worse than 1 down. He birdied the par-3 sixth to square the match, and then as Castillo made some uncharacteristic mistakes late, Steelman closed the deal with a conceded par on the par-3 16th hole.
“The key is just don’t be intimidated,” Steelman said. “Ricky’s a great player and he’s had success at a very high level, but I just had to believe that I’m a pretty good player, too.”
After all, Steelman and Castillo were both second-team All-SEC selections last season.
Coming out of high school, Steelman arguably didn’t have the game to make a deep U.S. Amateur run. But he improved quickly, notching four top-4 finishes last spring, including his second college victory, at Missouri’s home event. This summer he’s contended at some top amateur tournaments and cracked the top 100 in the world.
With the Tigers making a coaching change, Steelman sought a change of scenery. He knew he wanted to go somewhere that would prepare him for the PGA Tour. Heppler didn’t even have to log into the transfer portal to attract Steelman.
“He’s really committed, and I think he just looked around, and his skillset and goals had changed since high school, and he saw himself in a different light,” Heppler said. “He wants to play the Tour, and he looked around, and not to pat ourselves on the back, but it’s gone pretty well for our guys.”
Steelman, an economics major with three years of eligibility left, wasted no time deciding on Georgia Tech. Leaving his home state was tough, but the Columbia native moved to Atlanta at the beginning of the summer to start classes and settle into a routine at the Yellow Jackets’ practice facility.
“I told him I thought it was important to get married again as soon as possible,” Heppler said. “I just wanted to make him feel like he’s already adjusted and that he’s not coming into a new scenario come Aug. 23. Hopefully he feels like he’s already in his place.”
Steelman now rooms with teammates Connor Howe and Ben Smith, through which he’s developed a friendship with Ogletree, who still lives near campus. The 2019 U.S. Amateur champ is still recovering from hip surgery, but he’s been cleared by doctors to start playing holes again.
Many of his practice days are spent alongside Steelman.
“He bombs it,” said Ogletree via phone on Friday afternoon; he had just turned on the television coverage. “He hits it far and straight.”
Ogletree didn’t have much advice to give Steelman before this week. He knew the tall, lanky transfer was playing well enough, so that’s what he told him, and that play has continued into match play.
“It’s always nice to be around somebody that’s done something and tells you that you can do the same thing,” Heppler said.
Ogletree did say that if Steelman advances to the semifinals, he’ll likely call. That’s when, as Ogletree says, the real pressure begins. That’s when berths to the U.S. Open and Masters are on the line.
“The crowds go from not much to pretty big, and you know everything that rides on that match,” Ogletree said. “I felt like I put a lot more pressure on myself in the semifinal match, and I never really got it under control until the back nine. I think I learned some stuff from that that helped me going forward.”
Georgia Tech actually boasts four U.S. Amateur winners – Bobby Jones being the other, five different times – but because the USGA only awards one Havemeyer these days (and the player usually keeps it), the athletic department has just one trophy on display.
Until this year, though, only the names of Jones and Kuchar were on the base. Heppler finally was able to ship the base overseas and have Ogletree and Strafaci added to it.
“It’s as updated as you can get,” Heppler said, before quickly adding, “until right now.”
He may have to ship it right back.
“I’ll be fine with that,” Heppler said. “That is money well spent, I promise.”