Feb. 17, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
The golfers take off again today for another semi-exotic locale, but when Georgia Tech’s linksters compete Sunday-Tuesday in the Puerto Rico Classic it will not be with ideas of soaking up sun or reveling in their surroundings.
It goes back to the key verb in the first paragraph: compete.
Head coach Bruce Heppler is not one to work the boys gradually up to speed. He’d rather them take their knocks and get a clear idea of what they’re going to be up against not just now, but down the road.
The Yellow Jacket, even having graduated three very strong seniors, are ranked No. 5 nationally by GolfStat. They didn’t get to be that way by rolling over everyone in their path last fall, or even a couple weeks ago in finishing fourth in the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawai’i.
Strength of schedule is a key component in determining the GolfStat rankings, and it’s key in Heppler’s scheduling philosophy.
“I think with the schedule that we try to play … you really try to make it feel like it’s the NCAA tournament every time you go,” Heppler said. “I’ve always felt that if you do that, you know where the bar is that you have to jump over. You go to Hawai’i and there’s seven or eight of the top 10 teams there.”
Tech faced seven teams from the nation’s top 15 in Hawai’i, and most of the field came from the West Coast. This weekend in Puerto Rico, seven of the nation’s top 50 will be there, and most of them come from the East Coast, including four Atlantic Coast Conference teams.
Heppler said, “These fields are like what you’d have to get through at an NCAA regional, or make match play [the quarterfinals] at the national championships, so we’ve never really scheduled victories around here.”
This started with the simple question: what’s the goal this time out?
Redshirt sophomore Bo Andrews answered thusly: “The goal is alway to win the tournament and play your best, but week to week we just want to get better. We want to improve every time we go out.”
Indeed, improve every time out.
The Jackets have taken some lumps in the fall, and even spring, seasons over the years only to eventually start rolling by the time the ACCs, the NCAA regionals and the national championships arrive.
The Jackets have won three straight ACC titles, and have made match play at the NCAAs the past two seasons.
“They may not be ready for that at the beginning, but the understanding is that’s the bar if you want to be successful down the stretch,” Heppler said. “We didn’t back the thing down when we lost [Paul Haley, John-Tyler Griffin and Kyle Scott].
“We knew at the start of the year that Anders [Albertson] had never played a stroke in college, Ollie [Schniederjens] hadn’t, either. Bo had been out a year. Seth [Reeves] had just played a few times. It just becomes a way of life.”
There was internal, “uproar,” a few years ago when Heppler decided to change a prestigious tournament in which the Jackets had a history of competing, and part of the backlash was driven by the fact that the event — at Isleworth in Orlando — was highly competitive.
“That tournament was a big deal,” Heppler said. “But there were some things that went on there that I didn’t like.”
It’s not like Heppler replaced that fall event with a walkover. He moved the U.S. Collegiate Championships, which Tech hosts, from the spring to the fall — in that hole.
That’s one of the premier events in the nation now.
“We just added Stanford and Oklahoma State [to this fall’s field] to what we already have. That’s not what you do to dominate,” he said. “You try to recruit, and you say, ‘Here’s one of the things we’re going to do: we’re going to play in the very best tournaments every week, and play against the very best players.
“The idea is if I’m going to play well and be an All-American, I need to beat those guys. What you don’t do is let them think that they can’t. They were recruited under one guise; the best every week. If I change the schedule, they’re not going to believe us.”
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