SEWICKLEY, Pa. — If all goes well, Connor Schmidt has decades to go in his competitive golf career, but we’ve already established one thing.
He doesn’t suffer from stage fright.
With two of the finest performances of his young career occurring at two of America’s grandest courses, the Drexel University stud and Peters Township grad will soon tote his rising game to Allegheny Country Club and the (now COVID-19 delayed) Western Pennsylvania Amateur Championship.
Last July, Schmidt outlasted the Amateur field at Oakmont Country Club, building off his 2018 West Penn Open experience at the notoriously-difficult U.S. Open course. There, playing against a combination of amateurs and professionals, the Venetia native surged ahead in the final round before fading over the final few holes.
With that memory in the bank, Schmidt rallied from behind to win at Oakmont last year, shooting even-par 71 in the final round and then watching the leaders came back to him. His 4-over total through 54 holes was enough to win by two, as his 18th-hole par save out of the infamous Oakmont fescue stood up when leader Mark Goetz blew his final tee shot out of bounds.
“It was memorable,” Schmidt told me over the phone last week from Pinehurst, North Carolina, where he was competing in the prestigious North & South Amateur Championship.
“I knew (the leaders) were ahead, but I knew par was a good score. Obviously I wasn’t rooting for (Goetz) to do what he did. When I saved par on 18, I never thought I would win.”
This year, whenever the Am is competed, Schmidt is hoping to build off a strong showing at the North & South. After failing to advance from the stroke-play portion in his tourney debut last year, Schmidt shot 1-under 69 last Tuesday on Pinehurst’s famed No. 2 course — also part of the U.S. Open rotation — to make the cut for match play for the first time.
Schmidt fell 4&3 to LSU’s Trey Winstead in the Round of 32, squandering a 2-up lead on the front nine, but he’s now looking ahead to defending the most recent of his handful of career victories.
“I think (winning last year’s Amateur) proved that I have a bright future,” said Schmidt, who also prevailed at the 2018 Pennsylvania State Amateur and followed that up with a fourth-place showing in the title defense.
At 6-foot-5, Schmidt certainly has the physical tools to compete in the modern game. A former baseball, basketball and soccer player, he lists distance and power as strengths, but the majority of his work over the past few years with coach David Kuhn has focused on his short game.
“The game’s changing; everyone hits it far,” Schmidt said. “But at the end of the day, the lowest score wins. Nobody cares how you do it.”
Kuhn, who has been working with Schmidt for nearly a decade and also served as his high school coach at Peters Township, acknowledges that one of his star pupils is a “gifted athlete,” but that’s not all that’s driven his success — both in individual amateur competitions and in NCAA matches.
“He’s a sponge,” Kuhn said. “He loves to learn and works very hard. I think a lot of his ascent in golf has been his ability to score, and one of the major factors in his ability to shoot low is that he’s a great putter.
“A lot of his peers hit the ball well. There are lots of good ball-strikers at that level. Those who can score separate themselves. It’s his ability to hole putts that’s allowed him to gain strokes against the field in most tournaments, and he works very hard in that area of the game.”
That effort, both independently and with guidance from certified AimPoint putting instructor Kuhn, has helped Schmidt push to the top of the heap for Drexel.
Although his senior season at the Philadelphia-based school was cut short by COVID-19, Schmidt was named the university’s male student-athlete of the year this spring. He boasted the best final-round scoring average in the entire nation in 2019-20, raising anticipation for his ‘repeat’ senior year.
“I’ve won a handful of tournaments, and I’ve come from behind in the majority of those,” he said, explaining his final-round efficiency. “When it matters most, I can turn it on, because I know what it takes.”
Schmidt is also the program’s record holder for lowest scoring average in a season: 71.4. That mark paced the entire Colonial Athletic Association in 2018-19 and helped him earn last year’s Frank Fuhrer III Award, which honors the top collegiate golfer from western Pennsylvania.
Coming up at Allegheny CC, he’ll face plenty of competition from his local peer group.
This year’s Fuhrer Award winner, Jack Katarincic of Shady Side Academy and now Miami (Ohio) University, is coming off an impressive showing last week at the talent-loaded FBF Invitational, where he was low amateur. Franklin Regional grad Palmer Jackson just set the Notre Dame scoring-average record as a freshman, following his headline-grabbing run to the quarterfinals of last summer’s U.S. Amateur.
And don’t forget Goetz, a Kiski Area product who has been a stalwart in the West Virginia lineup for three seasons. Much like Schmidt last year, he’ll be trying to right a previous wrong at the WPGA Amateur.
As many in this sport can attest, redemption can be a powerful fuel.
“I think every hurdle that a player overcomes helps them gain confidence and belief,” Kuhn said. “Great players learn and improve from past, quote-unquote, failures and work to overcome them.
“Progress isn’t always linear and players like Connor understand that. Sometimes you have to fail to learn to succeed.”
All competitive golfers had to adapt to some adversity this spring, with coronavirus closing courses and practice facilities for several weeks. Schmidt said it took a while to regain his edge once he was able to return to his home base of Nemacolin Country Club in May, but a combination of friendly matches with members there and a large volume of reps put him in position to break new ground at Pinehurst.
“Everyone was a little rusty when courses reopened,” Schmidt explained. “I’ve just been playing a ton of golf, and (last) week I felt back to normal mentally.”
As always, the challenge in golf is to find a way to extend a run of fine form. With the Amateur’s postponement, maintaining momentum will be paramount for Schmidt to again discover uncharted territory: A successful title defense in a major event.
Even though his only experience at Allegheny CC came in a high-school match a few years back, in one big way Schmidt can say he’s been there before.