Interview with Golf Coach Bruce Heppler

Sept. 9, 2008

ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s golf team returns eight of nine players from last year’s team, and all five members of its travel squad that played in last year’s Atlantic Coast Conference Championship and NCAA Central Regional. The Yellow Jackets are ranked No. 10 entering the fall season by Golfweek magazine and by the Golf Coaches Association of America in Golf World magazine.

For the first time in 11 years, however, the Jackets did not advance to the NCAA finals last spring, finishing 15th in the NCAA Central Regional in Columbus, Ohio. Head coach Bruce Heppler welcomes back a pair of All-Americans in senior Cameron Tringale and junior Chesson Hadley, along with an experienced squad that includes three other seniors and a pair of sophomores who played in a total of 14 events last year.

Added to the mix are red-shirt freshman William Miller and two incoming freshmen in James White and Minghao Wang, both of who ranked in the top 50 among the nation’s junior players, giving the Jackets much greater depth and competition for spots in the travel squad each week.

As Heppler watched his team play the fifth of six rounds (108 holes) in the team’s pre-season qualifying tournament last week at The Golf Club of Georgia, he gave his thoughts on this year’s team and the NCAA’s new post-season format.

You’re building up your depth with two highly-regarded incoming freshmen, one red-shirt freshman and no losses from your top five at the end of last season. What do you expect in terms of competition for spots on the travel team?

“The goal every week is to make sure that no one gets to go unless they are playing well. Not very often do you play poorly in a qualifier and then go to a tournament and things just turn around. With those other nine guys returning another year older, hopefully a little better, and with two guys that have shown that they can play very well, you hope every week that when you leave for a tournament that the five that get to go are playing well. That would be the benefit of the depth.

“Hopefully since the quality of 1 through 10 is better, whoever No. 5 is has probably played pretty well to get to go. I think that’s the real benefit of it. That makes you more competitive in tournaments.”

Your 4 and 5 spots were probably the most problematic all of last year. Do you worry less about that?

“It was problematic in the fall, and really before the year was over, it got turned around. I’m very pleased. In the ACC Tournament, Taylor Hall finished fifth and David Dragoo finished 13th, and you would have said to yourself, “Boy! How many might we win by?” And even at regionals, some of the scores those guys shot, it got to be between Taylor and J.T. and David that there were two pretty decent scores every day. And, unfortunately, we struggled on the other end a bit in the spring.

“Hopefully, we’ll smooth that all out, and catch our two All-Americans playing well, and hopefully that 3, 4, and 5 are going to be better than they were a year ago because it improved during the spring.”

Coming off a disappointing finish to last spring, what did you come away with as issues you needed to address? Do you have what you want on your roster?

“I really believe that from me on down, we need to get back to being really hard to discourage. I’ve thought about that regional over and over again, and quite frankly, it came down to nine holes. The other 45 holes that we played, we were competitive with the people that won the tournament. But on the first day, the second nine holes, we played them 16-over. We were only 7-over at the turn, which was fine treading water, but then we just gave in. We backed away from the challenge.

“We just have to do a better job of making a bogey, letting it go, and not making five in a row. If you think about the teams that we’ve had that were really successful, mentally, they truly believed that when things got bad and when things got nasty weather-wise or whatever else, that we had an advantage.”

How do you work on that with these guys? Do you feel like there is a mental makeover in progress there?

“If you’re better throughout the lineup, and it takes better scores to make it, then a guy learns during qualifying that he can’t make five in a row. I am hoping the competitive nature of 1 through 10 will teach those that need to figure out how to hang in there that if you give up five, then you sit home.

“The second way is when it’s late October or its January and February, we have a chance to go out when it’s really nasty and we have some days that are tough, make sure that we are out there with our rain gloves and our stocking caps, and we a chance to go out there and say, “Hey! I can do this. This isn’t something that I’ve never done.” Hard is all about your perception and your perspective. We need to make sure that when its difficult outside, we’re outside. I think between those two things that the mindset will change a little bit.

“It was Roberto (Castro’s) freshman year, and he took nine holes off and shot 43, and he didn’t make the trip. And he never took another nine holes off. And he was upset about it, and he thought he should have gotten picked, but I think he learned a valuable lesson that hopefully will carry on whether that you have to play every hole the best way you can. Competition should take care of that.”

Tringale started slowly and finished strong last year, Hadley a great fall and an uneven spring. Assess their progress since you saw them last in the spring.

“Cameron has not had great falls here. I think he realizes that this is it. And I don’t think he liked being left off those All-American teams last year. He seems to have arrived with maybe a little more purpose than normal. He’s always played a lot through the summer time. It’s hard to go from January to August and then get yourself back ready for college golf. Just watching how qualifying is going and what he is doing in the weight room, I think he’s decided that he wants to get on the first team again.

“Chesson is learning how to deal with expectations. That’s going to be a real growth thing and a real factor in whether he plays well or not because now, there are expectations, so there are some things he’s got to learn to deal with. But he had a pretty good summer shot some really good numbers. I think Chesson’s biggest challenge is to deal with his expectations for himself and what he thinks others’ expectations are for him, and that is going to require some patience on his part.”

Taylor Hall had a couple outstanding tournaments last year and some good rounds scattered throughout. How can he become more consistent in his final year?

“I think he’ll even that out. He’s always had a round that has kept him from a lot of higher finishes. But when I look at his scores from the summer, he didn’t play any bad rounds. I know he wants to play well and finish up, and I think you’ll see some more of that because his scores have gotten better. He’s worked on every aspect of his game to the point where he can be more consistent. I think there was always maybe a weakness in one area or another, and it would just bite him before the 54 holes or the 72 holes were up.”

Is he talented enough to play one or two in the lineup?

“There are days when you watch him play that you think he can be a first-team All American. There have been rounds that he has played when we were by ourselves or the team is doing something, and they are some of the best rounds I have ever seen. The key is for him to figure out how to do that when our gun goes off, because he has played some wonderful rounds in some amateur tournaments. I think this will be a really good year for him.”

David Dragoo has been an interesting story and made a breakthrough last year. Describe what he adds to this team, and do you expect him to stick in the lineup?

“You are going to have to work really hard to push him out. He has settled in, and he believes in himself. He’s had enough success that he knows he can do it. From five in the morning until 10 o’clock at night, he is going to do what he needs to do to get to play. And if there are some guys who won’t match that effort, he is going to be really hard for these guys to deal with. He’s again another one of these fifth-year redshirt guys. He is on the other side of academics. This year should be really easy for him as he is finishes up. Dave will live in the weight room, on the range, and at the golf course. I would expect to see what he did towards the end of last year to continue, and as he improves we may see some really nice finishes in tournaments.

At 5-foot 6 and 124 pounds, how does he generate his power?

“What it teaches you is that it’s not about size. There’s the two concepts of distance: I think it is mass times speed squared. So obviously we are a little limited on the mass. But he has really wonderful fundamentals. And because he stays centered, the inside as he rotates stays really nice and centered and tight. He has proper fundamentals, releases when he is supposed to, and by having those fundamentals at the end of the day he can hit it a long ways. But it’s really a tribute to his mechanics and the way he goes about things. His fundamentals are really solid.”

How was J.T. Griffin able to break into the lineup last spring? How has he progressed in the summer?

Paul Haley had that spot all year and went to Puerto Rico and played poorly. So that was J.T.’s opportunity, and when they played against each other the rest of the year, in some qualifiers and in our tournament here, J.T. beat him pretty bad. J.T. took advantage of it. He has had some decent rounds, his last round at Ohio State (a 74) was a really nice round. And he has had a couple of good tournaments this summer. That class with Paul and now with J.T., we need those guys. That’s the future after these seniors leave. I hope he makes a difference this year.”

What was it that allowed him to play better on some of those more difficult tracks?

“He has a lot of physical skills, but he just hasn’t put it all together. He is really long, so at least if he’s in the rough, it’s on down there. He really does have a pretty good short game, which is what you’ve got to have when it gets difficult. When you look at where the next three NCAA Championships are; you hope that he works hard and takes care of his business. Physically, he’s a guy that can play well in those events.”

What did (red-shirt freshman) William Miller learn during his red-shirt year, and what do you expect from him? What parts of his game are strongest, weakest?

“William had a really difficult year (mononucleosis sidelined him for the fall). He’s in the engineering program, and he is trying to deal with that. I think, hopefully, he has become a tougher kid. He has much more life now. He didn’t use the year up playing poorly, and hopefully he learned the golf courses some to get him a little bit more competitive. So I expect him to play better. I think he grew up a lot and learned how to go to Georgia Tech, doing all the things that keep him busy during the day.

“He can really drive the ball terrifically straight. He’s got some confidence back. He can hit fairway after fairway, and green after green. If he makes some putts, then all of a sudden he is under par.”

Your two signees – James White and Minghao Wang – come in with very solid credentials and high rankings. Do you expect them to compete immediately? Assess their games.

“I think they’ll push these guys. It may take a little while, because they have to learn how to do all this stuff, too. But, they seem to be very focused, very driven, quite mature, I think. Whether they get their spots or not, or just push for them, I think they’ll make a difference from that standpoint.”

White seems to be a pretty confident fellow; not shy, not meek.

“He’s extremely mature. He is very focused, goal oriented. He wants to be great. I don’t think he’s making that up when he says that. For the people who have been around him and watch him go about his business and even in our two year relationship with him, he is very serious and wants to be successful. And usually that will happen.”

How important was it for you to recruit a local kid like that?

“The state of Georgia over the years has produced some wonderful players. And we feel like that we got the best player in the state. He is a wonderful student. That’s good for recruiting because then in the next year, you can follow it up again because of somebody that he knows. A lot of recruiting is based on relationships. So that was a big get for us.

What’s your opinion on the new NCAA post-season format (54 holes of stroke play, with the top eight teams engaging in match play to determine the team champion)?

“If you think about all the other NCAA sports, other than football, there’s a championship bracket. People understand that, but I don’t really think people really understand what we do. If you finish fourth (in stroke play), is that really good? So, now to have a pyramid at the end of our season, when you make that round of eight, round of four, and the semifinals, people will stop and take notice.

“In basketball, it’s almost as though if you get to the Final Four, winning it gets to be somewhat almost irrelevant. That’s the real accomplishment, and coaches receive recognition, and players receive recognition because you made the Final Four. In our sport, it has been just four days and it’s over. No one but the champion really ever gets any recognition for being successful.

“I think we’ve toiled in complete anonymity for years, nothing about college golf. The game has grown, the players are better, everything about it is better, other than no one knows what we’re doing. The way we do it, we can’t get even get on the (ESPN) ticker. You’ve got field hockey and every other sport, they’re on the ticker. And how do you do that with golf? Well now, for at least two days, three days, it will say somebody beats somebody. And they’ll go, that makes sense to me. So I’m a big supporter of that. I think at the end of the day it’s going to really be terrific for our sport.”

Will match play make the finals more interesting to watch, easier to follow, both for fans at the course and potentially for TV?

“It enhances that because it is easier. I know that our favorite tournament other than the national championship was the match play, because the kids get it. They’re playing a match against another school. We’ve had some incredible matches against Georgia over the years, against Oklahoma State and others. The intensity and the passion that’s involved in those matches is really a lot different than what you see just kind of walking around for four days of stroke play.”

Not to mention some of the individual match ups that will arise.

“I think that will bring a lot of notoriety. I think the Ryder Cup is immensely positive, well thought of, and I think that this moves us more into that kind of a competition.”

Are six regionals (15 teams playing for five spots in each) better than three (27 teams playing for 10 spots in each) in terms of advancing to the finals?

“I think it makes it more difficult. Anybody in golf will tell you that they will rather play for more spots. I think you’ll see more teams that are supposed to get through miss. I think there’s a trend in that because the `supposed to’s’ are not nearly as clear as they used to be. So I think it makes it much more competitive. It does take a lot of the weather out of the issue because all the teams are playing at the same time. There is not as much of a break if you had a morning or afternoon starting time. So there’s some good and bad to it. You are going to have to be a really good team to get through.

“Obviously that means more geographical movement. And any time you leave your comfort zone, things get a little bit more difficult. Florida State and North Carolina went all the way to Seattle last year and missed. We went to Ohio and missed when there was a tournament just up the road in Chattanooga. And any time you get off the grasses that you play and the climate that you play in you’re probably not as good as you would be when you are in your own region.”

Does this put more pressure on the committee in placing teams in regionals and balancing those fields.

“When someone really sits down and thinks about it, there has to be more movement. Because the East has so many teams you are going to be shipping people. I just hope at the end of the day that travel restrictions or not wanting to move people is not the reason why they don’t balance it. That will be the real key. They’re going to have to pay attention to it.”

Who is the most driven, competitive player in this team?

“David (Dragoo) is very competitive. It’s different because he hasn’t succeeded like those other guys. They’re so all over the map with the amount of success that they’ve had. He’s competitive from the standpoint of how he tries to do all the right things. Losing probably bothers some of the other guys more than him. So his is more a conscientious competitiveness. Chesson (Hadley) and Cameron (Tringale) both hate losing pretty bad.”

Who works hardest in the weight room and in your early-morning workouts?

“Probably David. He didn’t get the Iron Athlete, which bothered him. He’s there early, he does his stuff. He is very competitive in there. So you know the others work, but I will probably give my nod to David on that.”

Who is the most dedicated and meticulous with practicing?

“Cameron. He spends the most time.”

Who has the best course-management skills?

Probably Adam (Cohan). He’s pretty good at finding his way around places. He hasn’t played a lot, but he tries to make it as easy as he can. So I think he thinks a lot about what he’s doing and how to do it.”

Who is the best putter?

Taylor Hall. He’s got the belly putter and the claw grip, both.”

Who has the best short game?

“David (Dragoo). His wedges are the best. He chips it pretty good.”

Who is the longest driver?

“That’s either Chesson or Taylor. Chesson hits it farther than Taylor does.”

Who is the most accurate driver?

“Probably Cameron. He hits it the straightest.”

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