Golf's A Full-time Pressure Cooker

March 1, 2010

by Matt Winkeljohn, Managing Editor
OSR Sting EXTRA

ATLANTA — Easy as it is to look at Georgia Tech’s golf schedule and assume there’s a lull at present since they don’t compete again until the Southern Highlands Collegiate in Las Vegas March 12-14, some of the linksters rarely get to let their guard down.

In seasons past, coach Bruce Heppler typically held open competition for all five travel spots for just about every tournament. In an attempt to reduce pressure, Heppler has modified the way he picks his travel roster this season, and the top three spots (five travel) are set for now in John-Tyler Griffin, James White and Kyle Scott.

They locked up travel spots based on their play in the fall, when their stroke averages of 70.2, 71.43 and 72 were first, second and fourth on the team. Poor play over a period of time could affect their spots on the spring travel roster, but for now they’re set.

The fourth spot for the Southern Collegiate has been set, as Heppler has tabbed senior Chesson Hadley in a move that approximates the “captain’s pick” in Ryder Cup play.

Hadley’s fall stroke average of 71.71 was third best, but unlike Griffin, White and Scott — who played in all four fall events — he failed to qualify for one tournament.

Chesson Hadley has earned All-America honors twice. His spring debut is pending.

The fourth and fifth spots have been open for playoffs for the Jackets’ first two outings this semester, and Paul Haley earned a travel pass both times while the other spot was split between Bo Andrews and William Miller.

The playoff process typically involves several rounds played over a period of time, and is ongoing.

Hadley was honorable mention All-America as a freshman after a strong spring, and second team All-America as a sophomore before an uneven junior season.

Given that Tech has struggled to field competitive scores in the No. 4 and 5 spots in two tournaments this winter, Hadley’s track record in tournament play has earned the team’s only senior at least temporary relief from the pressure cooker of ongoing competition outside of the “real” competition.

He played pretty well in the fall, as all seven of his competitive rounds were low enough to count toward the team score. Five of his seven rounds were under par, and he finished the fall at even par. For the year, fall and spring schedule combined, Griffin is 26 under par, White is at -4, and Scott is +4.

James White and Kyle Scott have competed in every tournament for the Jackets this school year.

It’s a unique sport, college golf, and it’s not always comfortable. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite.

“Guys have to qualify against each other to get a spot. It’s kind of hard to go up against your buddy when there’s a chance of him staying home,” Griffin said. “There’s some hostility, but everybody understands.”

That includes Heppler.

He said that the mental aspects of team golf — which are demonstrably different than when players are on the course entirely for themselves — make for some awkward situations.

Part of Heppler’s job is to help his golfers sort through their bugaboos, both the mechanical and the psychological. And getting a straight read on psyche of his golfers at times can be tough.

“There’s probably some that are afraid [to be candid with the coach about their concerns],” Heppler said. “[During a tournament], I’ve got five guys suffering back in Atlanta, and I think probably because the nature of the system, guys might be a little hesitant to tell you they were nervous, or stressing because they think you’re going to get them out of the lineup.

“I think given the nature of what we do, nobody wants to let anybody know they’re uptight.”

When a golfer is not performing well, especially if another teammate also is struggling and four of five scores typically count toward the team’s tournament score, the pressure is quite different than in some other sports. If two golfers go out and shoot high `70s or low `80s, it can all but torpedo the team effort even if the other three are flirting with par or better.

“In football, for example, if Josh [Nesbitt] throws three interceptions, maybe Josh can walk away because they won and those mistakes are not nearly as damaging to a psyche because you have teammates who can pick you up,” the coach said.

Heppler might be able to help his golfers soothe their nerves – when he knows their nerves need soothing. That, more than mechanical fine-tuning, is the college coach’s job.

“That’s about 90 percent of it,” he said. “A lot of players have [private] teachers. We try to recruit guys who have fundamentals. You don’t have time to build a swing in college. At the end of the day, they don’t have access to [private coaches during college tournaments]. The information is valuable, but they’ve got to have someone to share with how they’re feeling.”

In the end, although it’s a team sport with individual honors available, college golf gets down to being a lonely existence. The ability to control all the crazy thoughts racing through one’s head becomes at least as important – and perhaps more critical – than ball-striking, putting or anything else.

“No one can hit it for you,” Heppler said. “You try to get them to relish the nerves. I think that’s what Tiger Woods does better than most. I think his stomach is churning because he knows he’s in the middle of something big. But that’s what he wants.”

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