#STINGDAILY: Life On The Links

July 22, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

THE FLATS – Surely, you’ll excuse Bruce Heppler if he experienced something of a proud papa moment this weekend even as those emotions weren’t tied to his kids.

Georgia Tech’s golf coach has sent quite a few athletes out into the professional ranks, but he’s also sent young men into the real world. That’s both the same thing and something different, it’s also more important and it has plenty to do with Heppler’s pride.

Former and present Yellow Jackets had a heck of a week on links around the world, enough to where Heppler was nearly upside down trying to track them.

“It keeps you busy keeping up,” the coach said. “My wife kept asking, ‘What are you doing on your phone?’ “

There was rising junior Richy Werenski winning the amateur Porter Cup in Niagara Falls and Chesson Hadley picking up his first win on the eGolf Tour in Wallace, N.C. Then Matt Kuchar birdied the 72nd hole to finish at even par and in ninth place in the British Open ($128,400) and Troy Matteson, not only playing in his first major, but making The Open cut and then pulling himself out of the weeds Sunday to finish in a tie for 39th place and pick up a check for more than $33,000. This came on a day when the course finally grew teeth and scores were rolling back left and right.

Paul Haley — who was a medalist at the 2011 ACC Tournament for Tech — didn’t play last week, yet leads the Web.com (formerly Nationwide) Tour in earnings with about $246,000 to show so far. Roberto Castro finished tied for 18th in the PGA Tour’s True South Classic this weekend.

We’ll get to details shortly, but suffice to say that every one of these golfers has — likely more than once — been in a mental pit so deep as to consider abandoning the sport as a way to earn a living. Heppler’s been a sounding board in many of those situations, and having seen or heard these men while they were in the gallows it makes moments like those of this past weekend all the more poignant.

It’s not just positive results that warm the coach. He appreciates to the “nth” degree the process of earning them

“Troy was five over [on the front nine Sunday], and played three under from there. I know he made a huge effort to fight back,” Heppler said. “I think you can see a lot about their ability to handle disappointment in their ability to go on runs, to turn something bad into good . . .  I’m sure there was a point with Bryce [Molder] and all of them where they’ve wondered whether they can get going in another direction.

“I saw a little bit of the interview with [Open champion] Ernie Els. A year ago he was nowhere. The game, it’s so much like life . . . you’ve had moments where you say, ‘I’m not doing anything right. It’s hard.’ That’s why it’s such a great game. You’re out there by yourself; nobody can do it for you.”

Hadley’s been there and done that, and you might — if you’ve been following here for a while — remember that he did it at Tech.

After earning All-America honors as a sophomore, he struggled mightily as a junior. Golf wasn’t the only struggle. He and his girlfriend, who was a student at North Carolina, couldn’t seem to synchronize. Each of Hadley’s two primary worlds impacted the other.

He rallied for a fine senior season in 2010, married Amanda on July 17th that year, and then set out in the world to mixed results. Most notably, shortly after flaming out in the PGA’s qualifying school last fall he called the eGolf Tour office to inquire about withdrawing for 2012. He wanted to know if he could get his money back. Hadley had the doubts of every golfer, perhaps magnified.

“Golf is a game of ebbs and flows. It’s pretty much a mirror image of life,” he said by phone on Sunday. “There are times that are great, and times when you feel down or depressed. That was one of those times for me. I didn’t make it through Q School, and one of my biggest problems is I make decisions real rashly. I made an emotional decision, and I called and fortunately . . . I married a woman who is really good at making decisions and we came home and talked about it. She talked me off the ledge.”

So much of golf has little to do with what a player can do with the sticks and more about what he/she can do with a brain.

In winning the River Landing Open, which you can read about here http://egolfprofessionaltour.com/hadley-finally-claims-maiden-egolf-tour-title-with-runaway-win-at-river-landing, where there’s a fine picture of Hadley and his wife smooching after the final shot, he was flat-out on it. Not always is a golfer on it, but when you celebrate your second wedding anniversary on a Tuesday and then start a tournament on Wednesday and the biorhythms are right . .

“Some days you just roll out of bed and you’re like, ‘Oh no.’ It’s panic from the beginning. This was not one of those weeks,” he said. “I had a comfort level that you just don’t have unless you’re going to win a tournament. I was staying with a friend, having a good time, going out and eating sea food every night. My game has been in phenomenal shape. I just kind of knew all week I was going to be there all week. The putter stayed there all week. I kind of knew after the second round that I was going to win.”

Hadley remembers too well the miserable side of his game. He came this close to leaving to find a job in the real world.

“Last fall I was certainly wondering if I was good enough, if this is what I should be doing. I think everyone who has played golf at the level I’m at has had that experience,” he said. “If memory serves, coach Heppler said Kooch went down that road once. Golf is so much a part of our lives; I’m a professional athlete and it seeps into every crevice of my life. It’s hard not to freak out and panic.”

Heppler can rattle off examples of golfers on the edge of the abyss. He spoke Sunday of Matteson last year grumping and growling, wondering if he ought to seek another way to make a buck — even as he played a pro tournament at Pebble Beach.

Then, last week he nearly won the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic. Matteson lost a lead late and fell in a playoff, but his work was enough to punch a ticket to England.

Kuchar’s PGA career began quickly, but he lost his Tour card in 2005, failed to regain it through Q School that fall, and went to the Nationwide Tour. Now, he’s among the top seven money winners in the world for 2012.

“Obviously having to go back to the Nationwide Tour after he’d been such a big shot  . . . I’m sure there was a point with he and Bryce [Molder] and all of them where they’ve wondered whether they can get going in another direction,” Heppler said. “[Open runner-up] Adam Scott may have a great team around him, a swing coach, a mental person, all that. But nobody can do it for you.

“It’s like, [in life] do you prepare your whole life to have a troubled teenager, or trouble in your marriage? You can play so great and somebody can play one shot better. That’s why golf is such a great game. You can develop the character to handle the stuff life throws at you, and you can develop in the game the same way. I like to watch guys fight through tough starts and things like that.”

Hadley’s fought the fight. He’s fighting it still, and will right through Q School this fall. A little sense of humor and the use of self-deprecation may help as coping mechanisms.

He began Saturday’s final round with a bogey, about which he later told the eGolf website: “It was abysmal. I have an un-conceived child that could have played that hole better. It was awful. I sniped it off the tee left, hit a fat pitching wedge 60 yards, chipped on, then two-putted. Just brutal.”

Seriously, that’s what he said.

“You got to laugh a little bit,” Hadley said Sunday. “Golf’s not always about focusing and grinding your brain off. I think it’s pretty safe to say I know this is what I should be doing with my life.”

[You can read about Werenski’s Porter Cup win in the Buffalo News here (http://www.buffalonews.com/sports/golf/article959019.ece). T’was a fine weekend. Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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