Sept. 26, 2001
By Jack Williams – Just call it “The Molder Magic!”
The guy left such an indelible mark on Georgia Tech golf, it’s almost like Bryce Molder will be out there racking up birdies all over again when the Jackets open the new season Friday at the Ping/Golfweek Preview Invitational in Columbus, Ohio.
Tech Coach Bruce Heppler spells it out loud and clear.
“Bryce spent three years serving as a tutor to the guys on the Tech team,” the coach says. “He’a special person and set a special example. From him, our players learned not only golf lessons, but lifestyle lessons. Of course, Bryce will be missed as a player. With him in the lineup, you always knew we were going to be two or three under par every time we started a round. But because of him, I hope the others are now better prepared for this season.”
Molder, the 2001 National Collegiate Player of the Year, graduated from Tech last year with numerous academic and athletic honors. In his Jacket golf career, he posted the best scoring average of any collegiate player in history (70.69). Now a professional, the guy actually will be hundreds of miles away playing in a tournament in Texas this weekend.
Because of the Molder influence, however, and a Rambling Wreck lineup full of talent, the Jackets figure to be almost as good-some say even better-than in recent years.
Let me hasten to add that would take some doing because the Jackets, under Heppler, have been producing headlines and heroes in very consistent fashion.
Two years ago, Oklahoma State edged Tech by a single stroke in a sudden death playoff for the NCAA Championship at Opelika, Ala. Last season at Duke University, the Jackets finished fourth in the NCAA while Florida won the title. Tech won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship last spring for the seventh time in school history.
Does Heppler feel the current Tech team can be as good as the others of recent years, teams that produced a second super star in Matt Kuchar (who graduated in 2000)?
“That is possible, but a lot of things have to fall into place,” said Heppler, whose team is ranked fifth in Golfweek magazine’s pre-season edition. “We have more uncertainty this season. Some things were a given in the past. That is not so now. But yes, I will say it is possible that we can be as good if our ability is somehow magnified and we develop good chemistry.”
One thing for sure. Tech will find out in a hurry how it stacks up against the nation’s best. The tournament at Ohio State, Friday through Sunday, will feature 15 of the nation’s strongest teams competing on the Scarlet Course that will host the NCAA Tournament next spring.
“It’s a real plus to be chosen to play in this tournament,” Heppler says. “You get to play four rounds (including one in practice) on the course where the NCAA will be decided. You can’t beat that.”
Tech returns three players who had major roles in Tech’s success a year ago. They are seniors Kris Mikkelsen of Woodstock, Ga., and Matt Weibring of Plano, Texas, and junior Troy Matteson of Austin, Texas.
“We will not be as good at No. 1 and No. 2,” Heppler says. “You can’t expect our players to step in and perform as well as the two men (Molder and Kuchar) who played better than anyone else in Tech history. Maybe it will be a different story when you talk about depth and look at our team from No. 1 through No. 5.”
Heppler and everyone else involved with the Tech golf program are extremely high on three true freshmen who have had outstanding success on the junior circuit. Leading the way is Chan Wongluekiet (pronounced Wong-LU-key-it) from Bradenton, Fla. He is a stunner who has become just the third freshman under Heppler to qualify for a starting position in his first college tournament. The others to do so were Molder and Kuchar.
Other first-year men joining Wongluekiet are Mike Barbosa of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Nick Thompson of Coral Springs, Fla.
The three freshmen are long-time friends who aspired to play on the same college team. Thompson got a head start on the new season when he he advanced to the second round of match play in the U.S. Amateur tournament last summer.
“The freshmen are three of the most talented players we have signed,” Heppler says. “By the time the NCAA Tournament rolls around in the spring, it is possible that all three will be improved enough to qualify for our lineup.”
Wongluekiet comes from an athletic family that has made many golf headlines. His 15-year-old twin sisters, Aree and Naree, are star players. Aree was national junior girls’ player of the year in 2000 and currently is ranked second nationally among players in her age bracket.
Heppler says this will be a building year for many top collegiate programs and sees a wide-open race for national honors. “Lots of top teams are starting over,” he said. “Florida, which won the NCAA title last year, does have most of its players back, but lost the young man who won the NCAA individual title. Georgia might have been a favorite if the star player, Erik Compton, had not left school. Texas has everyone back.”
The Tech coach again sees strong opposition in the ACC. “Wake Forest has the most players returning,” he said. “Clemson had some significant losses, but will be strong. And North Carolina State is a team to watch.”
In the first polls of the new season, Tech is ranked third and fifth nationally.
“I would feel more comfortable with a ranking in the Top 10 or Top 15,” Heppler said. “I don’t know of any team that can lose the type talent we have lost and continue at the same pace. Oklahoma State won the national title in 2000. Then after that team lost Charles Howell, Oklahoma State did not even make the cut at the NCAA Tournament. That tells you how tough it is to maintain success.”
Heppler is pleased to have an new assistant coach, his first full-time aide. “Brandon Goethals’ primary assignment will be in recruiting,” Heppler said. “Recruiting has become so complicated, it takes more than one person to work in that area.”
Goethals was Heppler’s first recruit in his tenure as an assistant coach at UNLV and they have remained close friends through the years.
This week’s tournament will be the first of four in which Tech will compete this fall. Then comes the spring season with a full slate of seven tournaments on tap.
In their quest for tournament titles, the Jackets have a Rambling Wreck full of tradition. For starters, this was the collegiate home of Grand Slam Champion Bobby Jones and the current British Open champion David Duval. Larry Mize, a Tech star of note, went on to become a Masters’ champion, and Stewart Cink is a major threat on the pro circuit today.
Add Bryce Molder and Matt Kuchar to the mix and the Jackets do, indeed, have a bit of magic on their side.