SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Georgia Tech’s Ross Steelman has seen enough horror stories the past two years at Grayhawk to give anyone nightmares for weeks.
Balls bounding over greens.
Putts rolling like they’re on glass.
Extreme heat that can easily – and often does – suck great golf out of the best players in the world.
Last season at the NCAA Championship, Steelman was one of those horror stories, starting his tournament 6 over through six holes and carding just three birdies in four rounds. He ended up solo 77th, beating just one player who made the 54-hole cut.
“This course was punching me right in the teeth from the get-go last year,” Steelman said.
On Friday, though, the Yellow Jackets senior punched back. In 18 holes, Steelman doubled his career birdie total at Grayhawk, notching six birdies as part of a bogey-free, 6-under 64, which gave him the early first-round lead by two shots. Georgia Tech, at even par, also sits atop the leaderboard as a team.
Steelman holed 20-foot birdie putts on each of his first two holes to get some momentum early, and even when he put himself out of position off the tee – like at the par-4 closing hole when he left himself 222 yards in, out of the rough and over water – he quickly scrambled to at least earn himself an easy par.
“His iron play was ridiculous,” Georgia Tech head coach Bruce Heppler said. “Heck of a round.”
Steelman is the first player that Heppler has ever signed without meeting him prior to his commitment. Steelman grew up in Columbia, Missouri, about 5 minutes from Mizzou’s campus. While many of Steelman’s current peers learned the game at private clubs and from PGA Tour-level instructors, Steelman got his start at Perche Creek, a par-3 course that abuts the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70, just west of town. Steelman’s instructor, Jake Poe, owned the course, but later sold it and opened a golf shop in town, giving lessons out of simulator. Steelman would work for Poe when he wasn’t in school, and before he received his first band-new golf club at age 14, Steelman would occasionally rummage through Poe’s used-clubs bin to fill out his bag.
His favorite used discovery: the Titleist 7-wood with the red-and-black, whippy shaft that he found when he was 12 years old.
“I hit the crap out of that thing,” Steelman recalled. “I used it until the face cracked about five years later.”
Steelman was a good-but-not-great junior player, deciding early that he wanted to stay close to home and attend his dream school. But after two years at Mizzou, where he won twice, Steelman’s game had progressed enough to where his coaches recommended that he transfer to a top-10 program where he could further develop. And so, Steelman landed at Georgia Tech, where he was like a kid in a candy store – an elite practice facility, private-jet travel, renown academic opportunities, all at his disposal.
“His putting, wedges and chipping have all gotten better since he’s been here,” Heppler said. “He’s just become a complete player.”
But as Steelman said, though he now has a relationship with Titleist that has effectively ended his days of scouring resale racks, “I’ll still always hold onto the memory of rummaging through used clubs that people didn’t want any more. I hope I’m always appreciative for what I have.”
Right now, that’s a lot. Not only is Steelman in early position to potentially win an NCAA individual title – and possibly later a national team championship – he also is ranked sixth in PGA Tour University. After several high-profile seniors, including North Carolina teammates Austin Greaser (ranked ahead of Steelman) and Dylan Menante, decided to pull out of the ranking and return to school for an additional season, Steelman was bumped up to just outside of that coveted top 5. While No. 6 will still get in all the Korn Ferry Tour events this summer because No. 1 will be competing on the PGA Tour, No. 5 and better also earn a ticket straight to final stage of PGA Tour Q-School while Nos. 6-20 are only exempt into second stage.
Steelman had also briefly flirted with the idea of coming back for a fifth year, but now he’s decided this NCAA Championship will be his last event as an amateur. He needs at least a solo fifth finish or better to crack the top five without any other help.
“This week it’s control your own destiny for me individually,” Steelman said. “I’m glad Austin is going to be doing what he enjoys doing in going back to school. I’ve talked to him about it, and he loves North Carolina. But it was nice to see that he dropped out selfishly to kind of improve my potential status.”
Added Heppler: “Ross wants to play golf for a living, and he’s ready to go do that.”
What a difference a year makes.