Staying in the Hunt

Oct. 23, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– It’s great to be at “home” and all, but the greater value for Georgia Tech as the Yellow Jackets tee it up for the next three days in the United States Collegiate Championship at the Golf Club of Georgia lies in the possibility of getting beat.

Seems strange, right?

Well, maybe Bruce Heppler’s a little on the strange side.

The Tech golf coach doesn’t so much want to win – at least at this time on the athletic calendar – as he wants to challenge his student-athletes to games of chicken. His goal is to steel the lads by way of a brutal schedule, and reap rewards later.

Ranked No. 13 in the nation, Tech will be one of five ranked teams in a 15-squad field today through Tuesday in one of the premier college golf events in the land. This time it will be in Alpharetta.

Among entries, No. 1 UCLA, No. 12 Washington, No. 14 Texas A&M, and No. 17 California lurk.

It’s nothing new to Tech to find itself in dangerous territory.

Heppler, who may be as much a psychological manager as he is a coach, has led the Jackets to seven outright or shared ACC titles in his first 14 years as the Tech coach. With him tromping around metro Atlanta raising considerable funds for his program on his own, Tech has been to 12 straight NCAA tournaments, reached the final eight seven times, and been national runner-up three times.

Seven current PGA players, including Matt Kuchar, Bryce Molder and Troy Matteson, played for him at Tech, and at least three others are playing professionally.

Looking at regular-season results, you might at first have a hard time figuring out how the Jackets do so well in the postseason.

That’s because the Tech golf program, run with a certain militaristic approach, rarely wastes time scheduling and pummeling privates. The Jackets instead take on entire armies behind their coach’s idea that battling the best when all the marbles are not on the line increases the chances that they’ll toughen up and stroke it when the rolls really count — in the postseason.

“You have the same opportunity as in other sports to schedule victory, and you sometimes want to do that when you have a transition, like next year when we’re going to have at least three new players,” Heppler said while sitting on a plush couch in the cozy golf “clubhouse” that I never knew existed in the northwest corner of Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“Do we schedule down? You give them confidence, but the problem is every one of those guys has been recruited . . . under the guise that we’re going to play the best players and fields so that by the end of the year you know how high you have to jump over the bar.”

By the postseason, Tech almost routinely runs quite a quintet of vaulters onto the links.

There is an abundantly talented golf team on campus.

The Jackets lost only one golfer – Chesson Hadley graduated – from the squad that last season blew away the field to win the ACC title by 13 strokes, and then advanced through the NCAA regionals and to the national tournament only to be eliminated by eventual champion Augusta State in the quarterfinals.

Seniors John-Tyler Griffin, Paul Haley and Kyle Scott, and junior James White are back. They took turns last spring pacing the Jackets, Griffin most often leading the way although Hadley took individual honors in the ACCs.

Freshmen Seth Reeves and Richard Werenski – who entered school last January and “gray-shirted” last spring while attending class on his family’s own nickel – bear the habitués of promise.

Last summer, Werenski advanced to the second round of match play in the U.S. Amateur, and he’s played in all three of Tech’s events this fall, once as an individual.

He has not yet taken off as a scorer, but it’s typically difficult to project in the fall what the Jackets are likely to do in the spring, when the ACCs and NCAA postseason events come around.

“We kind of have to find our identity. Once we won conference, and we won by a bunch, those guys changed,” Heppler said. “Then we go to regional and played, well, and by the time we went to [NCAAs], those guys believed they could win. It kind of takes an event other than me saying it . . . this is the real dilemma for me.”

It’s a dilemma because Heppler keeps scheduling the Jackets into gauntlets.

“We may play more top 25 teams in two events than the rest of the [Tech athletics] department play in all of their schedules,” he said. “It would be like having a basketball tournament in the Coliseum and you invite Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Georgetown, Syracuse and UCLA. How many times are you going to win that tournament?

“The goal is to win a national championship. I think if we keep sticking our nose in there with these other guys, eventually they’re going to get over that bar. I just don’t know when that’s going to happen.”

The Jackets have had a solid, but not spectacular fall. As they enter their final event before next late winter/spring, there is great potential.

“If I want to measure the golf we’ve played so far this fall to last year, it’s significantly better,” Heppler said. “It hasn’t produced a win, but we’ve been in the hunt more. It took us all the way to the ACC championship last year to get us to where they knew what it was all about.

“There’s no question we’re way ahead of where we were last year. They’re progressing. This is a great opportunity for them. We should have a home course advantage. Sometimes the pressure to play well at home is large. But I think we’ve worked hard, and we’ll see how we can do against these guys.”

If you can stroke a golf ball well, you’re ahead of me. I haven’t played in two-plus years, which is kind of strange because I enjoy it because I don’t take it too seriously. Lend me some golf tales at stingdaily@gmail.com.

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