From junior tournaments to prestigious amateur events to top-level collegiate competition, the golfing worlds of Cory Whitsett and Ollie Schniederjans have often spun simultaneously.
Schniederjans, a Georgia Tech senior, scored one of his biggest junior victories as a 16-year-old against Whitsett in Florida. Whitsett, who recently completed his collegiate career by helping Alabama win its second consecutive NCAA title, topped Schniederjans in the 2013 NCAA team match-play semifinals.
Between and beyond, there have been numerous individual and team encounters. But none like Thursday, when both will play in their first Web.com Tour events as the 25th Air Capital Classic begins at Crestview Country Club.
The 156-player field – except for Schniederjans, who won an amateur exemption into the tournament last fall — will compete for $600,000 in prize money over the next four days on Crestview’s North course. The champion will receive $108,000.
Whitsett, a left-hander from Houston, is making his professional debut after concluding his amateur career in last week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was 8 years old,” said Whitsett, who received a tour sponsor’s invitation. “To finally be here is cool. It’s a little different not wearing your team gear and having your coach take you around for practice rounds and have dinner and stuff like that.”
Whitsett and his Alabama teammates did that a few weeks ago at Hutchinson’s Prairie Dunes. The Crimson Tide defeated Oklahoma State in the match-play final to defend their title.
Schniederjans, who turned 21 on Sunday, was also there. He finished second in the individual portion of the competition, losing on the third hole of a playoff to Stanford’s Cameron Wilson.
The Powder Springs, Ga., native will return to Georgia Tech for his final season this fall. He earned the Air Capital Classic berth by winning the U.S. Collegiate Championship in October.
“It’s really cool to be here because I know so many of the guys,” said Schniederjans, who is No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. “I’ve played against them in junior golf, and all the guys who are ahead of me age-wise, they’re here. I know 20 guys in this field personally, and they’re some of the best players out here.”
Both golfers arrived in Wichita on a whirlwind. Whitsett graduated from Alabama last month with a 4.0 grade-point average in commerce and business administration. After helping the Tide win the national title, he returned to Houston and won a 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Lakeside Country Club, his home course.
Whitsett spent the early part of June preparing for the U.S. Open and moving to Sea Island, Ga., where his instructor, Todd Anderson, and other support staff are located. At Pinehurst, he played practice rounds with PGA Tour golfers Brandt Snedeker, Harris English and Hudson Swafford. In the championship, Whitsett fired a second-round 69 but missed the cut by one shot.
“It’s the one week of the year when the best players in the world look pretty human,” said Whitsett, who won the 2007 U.S. Junior Amateur at age 15. “It was cool just to be there and spend some time around people I’ve watched and idolized growing up.”
Schniederjans, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, backed off competition after the NCAA Championships. The Air Capital Classic marks the start of a busy summer. After Wichita, he will travel to Surrey, England, to compete in the Palmer Cup, an annual competition between top collegiate golfers from the United States and Europe.
While overseas, Schniederjans will also attempt to qualify for the British Open.
“I was just worn out from competing and mentally drained from the grind and intense competition,” Schniederjans said of his spring schedule. “I wanted to be energized and mentally ready for this.”
Schniederjans’ familiarity with many Web.com golfers has eased a lot of apprehension. He played a practice round Tuesday with Whitsett, tour winner Blayne Barber and former Alabama golfer Justin Thomas.
“They’re helping me get my bearings out here,” said Schniederjans, who participated in the tournament’s junior clinic on Tuesday. “I’m in a different position than they are still being an amateur, but I’m learning a lot about how these things work.”
For Whitsett, who received his invitation to play the day he won the U.S. Open qualifier, the goal is to achieve early success and parlay it through the remainder of the season. He also has an exemption to play in next week’s United Leasing Championship.
“I guess you could call this a freebie, so to speak,” Whitsett said. “But this tour is set up to where a guy with no status can get going.
“On the Web.com, it still takes a very good week, but if you finish in the top 25, you can keep it going. The biggest thing for me is just to try to get into those Web.com Tour finals at the end of the year.”
While Schniederjans is a year away from pocketing money at a tournament, he will bid to become the fourth amateur to win on the Web.com Tour. He discovered Wednesday that a former Georgia Tech golfer, David Duval, won the 1993 tournament as a 21-year-old at Reflection Ridge.
“It’s still very clear it’s the right decision for me,” Schniederjans said of returning to school. “I’m very long-termed focused and I know that I’ll eventually be out there as a pro.
“I go to Georgia Tech, and it’ll feel good to get that diploma. Mother will love that.”