Don’t look now, but a wave of highly talented, really young Mississippi golfers is about to make a splash on the PGA Tour that will be unprecedented in the state’s golf history.
You don’t have to take it from me. Listen to 2019 U.S. Amateur champion Andy Ogletree, from tiny Little Rock in Newton County, who shot a first round 67 Thursday in the Sanderson Farms Championship at Country Club of Jackson.
“Yeah, it’s really cool to see all the young guys from Mississippi out here,” Ogletree, 23, said. “I’m not surprised. We all started young and we’ve been playing together for years all through the junior ranks. Got recruited together. There’s a lot of talent right here in Mississippi, a lot of us about the same age.”
Hayden Buckley of Belden also shot 67, Ogletree played with Fulton native and former Mississippi State golfer Chad Ramey, who shot 70. Davis Riley, another PGA Tour rookie from Hattiesburg, shot 71. West Point’s Cohen Trolio, the current Mississippi Amateur champion and just a freshman at LSU, also shot 71.
Before the tournament even began Jackson’s Wilson Furr shot 67 in the Sanderson Monday qualifying at Deerfield, but lost a five-hole sudden death playoff for the final spot in the Sanderson Farms field. You haven’t heard the last from the talented Furr – or from former NCAA champion Braden Thornberry, who also failed to survive the Monday qualifying but will play again on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2022. Jonathan Randolph, now of Oxford, still plays the Korn Ferry Tour, as well.
“Never before,” long-time Mississippi golf pro Randy Watkins answered, when asked when the state had produced so many tour-quality golfers at the same time. “It’s amazing, and you can add Ally Ewing to it if you want to include female golfers. She’s won twice on the LPGA Tour, one of the best ones out there, another golfer from Fulton.”
Why now? Why are so many potentially great players coming along at the same time? Golf has existed in Mississippi since the early 1900s. We’ve never had more than one or two golfers playing the PGA Tour at the same time.
“If you had to put a finger on it, I think there’s a couple reasons,” said Watkins, a former U.S. junior golf champion and tour player. “We’ve had so many great golf courses built in Mississippi over the last 20-25 years. I mean, world class courses. And the instruction is so much better for young golfers these days, guys like VJ Trolio and Tim Yelverton at Old Waverly, and I give a lot of credit to Jim Gallagher, who has taken an interest and played with a lot of these young guys coming up.”
The 2019 U.S. Amateur, played at fabled Pinehurst in North Carolina, was probably the best advertisement ever for Mississippi golf talent. More than 7,000 golfers from all 50 states and around the world entered the qualifying process. When the tournament reached the semifinal stage, two of the four remaining were from Mississippi, Ogletree and Cohen Trolio, then just 17. Ogletree defeated Trolio in the semis and went on to win the championship the next day, the first Mississippian to ever claim that crown.
Ogletree was just getting started. He was the low amateur in the 2020 Masters, finishing in a tie for 32nd. He turned pro after that, but his career has been on essentially a six-month hiatus since he underwent surgery on his left hip in April.
“It just feels good to be playing golf again,” Ogletree said after finishing his 67 Thursday. “Regardless of score, I’m playing pain free and that’s the most important thing for me right now.”
Asked if the bad hip had make it difficult to make a natural turn in his golf swing, Ogletree chuckled and then answered, “It made it hard to even walk.”
But Ogletree had a spring his step Thursday coming off the ninth green (his 18th) where he sank a seven-foot birdie putt to complete a round that included five birdies and an eagle. After all, this was a tournament he had in mind during those weeks and months of rehab from the surgery.
“Yeah, this is kind of the one we had circled hoping that I would get a sponsor invite into this one and kind of all of my rehab and preparation was that I would get a start here,” Ogletree said. “So it’s kind of all worked out kind of the way we wanted to and really happy to be playing in Mississippi, a lot of familiar faces out here this week, a lot of friends and family out watching, so it’s a good time and I’m glad everyone gets to see me play.”
Is there added pressure playing in front of so many home folk?
“No, I like playing in front of a crowd,” Ogletree answered. “The first nine PGA events I played before my surgery there was no crowd because of COVID. It’s nice to have a few people clapping now and then.”
The gallery had plenty to cheer from Ogletree and other Mississippians Thursday. When you consider all the talent, mixed with so much youth, this really could go on for years.