Reconnaissance Mission

March 20, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– Knowing that Bruce Heppler is ever-purposeful, when learning that in Georgia Tech’s win over No. 4 UCLA at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles the Bruins ran out the lower half of their lineup, you might wonder: why make that trip?

It’s was a reconnaissance mission.

The NCAA Championships will be at Riviera at the end of May, and not a single Yellow Jacket had played that course prior to Sunday.

Make more sense now?

The opponent didn’t matter; the course did.

Since the NCAA would frown upon a golf team traveling cross-country simply to practice a course, Heppler set up the match even though he knew that UCLA would choke its roster. The Bruins have finals this week.

So the 10th-ranked Jackets flew out West Friday and began their spring break by playing a relatively new course, L.A. North, on Saturday.

Then, sight-unseen, they played Riviera Sunday. The Bruins just happened to be there … some of them, anyway. Tech won 295-305 without playing all that well. The Jackets were 11-over-par.

“[The Bruins] played some of their lower-lineup guys,” said the Tech coach. “We played so much better Monday [in practice] after seeing it.

“The reason I did this is from all the guys I talked to on the [PGA] Tour, you need to see where you’re going. One practice round before NCAAs is just not enough [on a course not previously played]. You could just see the difference from one day to the second day.”

In Sunday’s match, Anders Albertson led the Jackets with a 1-over-par 72 in the rare dual match. Richard Werenski carded a 73, Ollie Schniederjans and Bo Andrews shot 75s, Seth Reeves a 77 and James White an 81.

We’ll get back around to White, the team’s lone All-American, in moments.

Heppler’s goal was not as simple as having his golfers see where they will [hopefully] be going in a couple months. The Jackets needed to see how the ball goes on a surface unlike anything in the Southeast or the other exotic locales they’ve played this season (Hawai’i, Puerto Rico).

This Poa annua — which germinates throughout the kikuyu grass fairways and the bent grass greens at Riviera, is like the stuff popping up right now in batches in your lawn in Georgia if you didn’t get a pre-emergent weed killer down in late winter — is tacky.

Long before summer arrives in the Southeast, it dies out. Out West, it sticks around in many places, and it has an effect.

“There is no pitch-and-run because the grass grabs your ball and almost stops; it’s a different way of playing golf,” Heppler said. “It grows at a different speed during the day … it’s a pretty frustrating grass to putt on. First thing in the morning it looks great.

“Later in the day, your ball will roll across bumps. The pitching, though, is what’s really different and there’s too many good teams out here — UCLA, USC, Cal, Stanford — that play on this stuff all the time.”

The Poa annua will not die out by the NCAAs, although Heppler suggested it may have less impact then than it has this week.

Once the Jackets get out there in May, if they qualify through regionals, they will spend much of the single practice round before the NCAAs working on their short games because they have now seen their way around the course twice.

“The greens will be completely different then as far as firmness. We’ll be able to spend a lot of time around the greens, pitching, putting,” Heppler said. “It’s hard to get all that [including a trip around the course] done in one [practice] round.”

The Jackets drove from L.A. to San Diego Tuesday, and on Wednesday they’ll play Rancho Sante Fe, where Phil Mickelson has so often played since he was a lad (his home there is presently for sale; got $7 mil?).

Then, on Thursday and Friday they’ll play in the 54-hole Barona Collegiate Cup at the Barona Creek Golf Club in Lakeside. That’s hosted by No. 12 San Diego State and the 16-team field will include No. 11 USC.

Each traveling golfer will compete in a somewhat rare six-play-five-score format.

Perhaps White will get back to leading the way.

He’s finished in the top 10 in four straight events, and in the top 20 in all seven of his events this season dating back to the fall schedule.

White, though, is not much for playing matches that don’t count for something. Heppler had a chat with his senior after he slogged around Riviera, and, “wasn’t paying attention,” on Sunday.

Monday, White shot a 67.

“It’s only common sense the more you play someplace the better you get. Some places that’s more true than others,” Heppler said. “Hopefully, now we know where we’re going. Obviously, we have to get [back] here.

“Our team score was probably 10 or 11 strokes better Monday and James went out with a bit more of a purpose.”

White should know better than to do anything without a sense of purpose while Heppler’s around. Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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