The 2018-19 PGA Tour season has not been a particularly successful one for either Roberto Castro or Ollie Schniederjans, but the two former Georgia Tech standouts flew from Atlanta to Canada on Tuesday with more optimistic outlooks for the next few months.
Both players were among four qualifiers Monday at Hawks Ridge for the 2019 U.S. Open, which will be played June 13-16 at Pebble Beach. Both are competing in the Canadian Open this week, hoping to improve their status on the FedExCup points list with the 2018-19 PGA Tour regular season schedule only two months from conclusion.
Schniederjans shot 68-65—133 to share medalist honors with current Georgia Tech golfer Noah Norton. Castro shot 68-67—135 to tie for third with Duke golfer Chandler Eaton, who played his high school golf at Alpharetta, a few miles from where Castro played in high school at Milton.
Coming into this week’s Canadian Open, Schniederjans is 162 in the FedExCup standings while Castro is 134, in part due to a tie for fifth in the recent team event in New Orleans, where he played with another former Yellow Jacket – Cameron Tringale.
This is Schniederjans’ third season on the PGA Tour, and so far it has been by far his least successful. He was 39th as a rookie in 2016-17, closing out his debut season with a strong second place showing in Greensboro behind Henrik Stenson. He dropped to 87th last year, but contended for victory three times.
A tie for 16th in the Players Championship is his only top-25 finish this season, and there isn’t much doubt in Schneiderjans’ mind what the problem is.
“I haven’t been hitting it well,” he said after a pair of excellent rounds at Hawks Ridge. “It’s tee to green stuff. It’s been a lot of trial and error to try and get better and become the player from tee to green I’m capable of.
“It’s been a long two years, but I’ve got my whole career ahead of me.”
Schniederjans’ problems begin on the tee. Length is no problem, as he ranks among the top 10 in driving distance with an average of 310 yards per measured tee shots. But he is a distant 207th in fairways hit, last on the PGA Tour, with a success rate of just 47 percent. Worse, Schniederjans is trying to correct a two-way miss, as he hits it left off the tee almost as much as he’s missed to the right.
“I’ve been battling with my whole swing consistency. That’s what has held me back. But I’ve had lots of little breakthroughs and I know what I need to do to become better.”
Schniederjans’ poor driving has made it more difficult for him to hit greens, and he admits his “iron play and wedges have not been good either.”
Fortunately, his short game has held up, particularly his putting. Schniederjans ranks 50th in strokes gained putting, but some of his specific putting stats are much better, including a rank of second in three-putt avoidance.
“That’s kept me in it,” he says. “Once I get my full game under control, I’ll be in good shape. My putting has been consistent enough that I haven’t had to practice it much.”
Schniederjans closed out his long day Monday with a nice eagle putt on the par-5 18th at Hawks Ridge to get him to 11-under for the day and a tie for first place. He got off to s strong start in his morning round, shooting 4-under on his opening nine, but said he “did not take advantage” of his early good play, and settled for a 68 after a bogey on the par-4 ninth, his final hole of the round.
“I hit it great all day, but I played really good in the second round.”
He again went out in 32, this time on the front nine, and came in with a 33, highlighted by his eagle on the 18th. As one of the early finishers, he had to wait around to learn his fate, and after a few anxious moments, was able to relax as the other contenders either backed up or could not catch him. Norton needed to birdie the 18th to tie Schniederjans at 11-under.
“I thought I had to shoot 7-under, maybe 8 in the afternoon, but when I came in I saw the scores were not that low and that gave me some hope”
With his closing eagle, Schniederjans hit his 7-under mark, and headed out for Canada with a more positive mindset.
Although he had some struggles at times from his days as one of the country’s top junior golfer and during his otherwise stellar college career, this has been the longest down time for Schniederjans’ game.
“This is making me tougher, more bullet-proof,” he observed. “This game can make you want to give up, and you have to decide if you want to keep grinding or not.”
Schniederjans said “making the U.S. Open is always amazing, and it’s extra special being at Pebble Beach.”
This will be his first time to play Pebble Beach as a PGA Tour member, as he elected not to play the annual pro-am event, where the conditions are considerably different from those the players will encounter at the U.S. Open.
At 162 in the FedExCup standings, Schniederjans has some work to do before the season ends in early August.
“The goal is just to get to the Playoffs and give myself another chance; another year,” said Schniederjans, who needs to move into the top 125 to remain exempt for 2019-20.
“This is the hardest year I’ve ever had playing golf. I plan on playing for the next 20 years, and when I make it through this, I’ll be thankful” for the somewhat unpleasant but valuable experience.
Castro on the other hand, has plenty of experience at Pebble Beach, placing among the top 20 in the Pro-Am in 2013 and tying for eighth with a chance to win on Sunday in 2015.
“Pebble Beach is my favorite course in the world,” said Castro, who will feel more comfortable in this year’s U.S. Open than he has in his five previous starts in the championship.
Castro has yet to make the cut in a U.S. Open, but has missed by just one shot three times. He prefers the more classic U.S Open venues that are more in line with his game, as opposed to the newer sites that tend to favor the longer hitters, which Castro is not.
In the latest PGA Tour stats, Castro ranks 188th in driving distance, about 20 spots from the bottom. His putting stats aren’t a whole lot better, but his approach game remains a strength, along with his ability to scramble.
Castro carded six birdies for a 4-under 68 at Hawks Ridge in his morning round, and shot 33 on the back nine to put himself in position for a top-4 finish with nine holes to go. A birdie at the par-4 opening hole and an eagle at the par-5 fourth got him to 10-under, and he was able to withstand a bogey at the long par-3 fifth, finishing with a 67 for a 9-under 135 total.
On the day, Castro was 7-under on the par 5s at Hawks Ridge, where he also advanced to the U.S. Open in 2015. This was the third time in five years Castro has made it through Sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open from the Atlanta area, advancing from Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek, his home course.
Castro looks at Hawks Ridge as something akin to a home course, noting “I know the course and I have a lot of education on it.”
Although he has plenty of tournament experience at Pebble Beach, he realizes the playing conditions and course set-up will be markedly different in June from what he is accustomed to in February, but is looking forward to playing a U.S. Open course that is more suitable to his game.
This is Castro’s seventh season on the PGA Tour since 2012, and his level of play has swung significantly between two outstanding years (2013 and ’16), a respectable rookie showing in 2012 and three years in which he did not come close to matching his standard of play in his two most successful seasons, both of which ended with appearance at East Lake in the Tour Championship.
Castro is currently 134th on the FedExCup points list, with a tie for fifth last fall in Mississippi his best individual showing. He made the cut in nine of his first 10 starts in 2018-19, but since a tie for 20th in the Honda Classic, finished near the bottom in his next start in Tampa and missed his last four cuts in individual events.
“ I just haven’t gotten any rhythm,” said Castro, with his recent run of missed cuts keeping him from playing 72 holes in an individual event since late March.
Castro has finished outside the top 125 in three of his last four years on the PGA Tour (the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills last year was his only start away from the Web.com Tour), and is just outside that number with two months left in the regular season.
“I look at it as year-long process,” Castro said of the week-to-week grind on the tour and his standing on the points list. “It doesn’t matter until we get to (Greensboro),” the last regular season event. “I’m looking forward to this summer.
“Today was a good opportunity to get in 36 holes and find a rhythm. I played really nicely. Getting back to a course you know and play well on helped. Hopefully I can carry that forward.”