#TGW: In The Jungle

Nov. 8, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

   With time to kill on a rare fall trip to Hawai’i, most of Georgia Tech’s golf team recently opted for exploration only to end up off the grid among the islands where ABC’s “Lost” was filmed a few years ago.

   It was a fitting a way to wrap up the autumn season.

   For a blip, the Yellow Jackets and senior Anders Albertson were lost this fall before re-discovering themselves in time to roll comfortably into the holidays with visions of another ACC title dancing in their minds.

   After practice before the Warrior Princeville Makai Invitational in Princeville, Hawai’i, Albertson and teammates Michael Hines, Jacob Joiner and Chris Petefish headed out for a little beach time.

   That, like a Twilight Zone-ish stretch of the fall schedule, did not work out. The Jackets went on an odyssey before straightening themselves out.

   “We went on a pretty crazy hike we weren’t planning on,” said Albertson. “We were told this beach was pretty sweet so we hike down there, and it was crowded.

  “We kind of found ourselves looking for another place, and we were in the jungle. We had no cell service and couldn’t call anybody, but eventually we climbed a wall of weeds. It was pretty steep, and we finally got out of it.”

   Tech head coach Bruce Heppler usually schedules the Jackets in Hawai’i after holiday break to jump start the critical spring season. This school year, he booked the islands for a fall trip before knowing his team would suffer in its traditional autumn finale, October’s United States Collegiate Championship (U.S.C.C.).

   That schedule change worked out remarkably well.

   The 11th-ranked Jackets fired a 24-under par 264 on Wednesday to pull away from the field, and win the tournament by 15 strokes over No. 28 Arizona State (809 to 824).

   Aloha, misery!

   Albertson, two weeks removed from his worst outing as a collegian – where he beat just two golfers in a field of 79 — fired a 65 in the final round to finish 16-under par at 200 in fourth place.

  The Jackets’ down time has now come, and they can rest easier through the holidays.

  “It was an awful, awful feeling coming off the USCC finish — team and individual,” Albertson said. “It would have been a very long offseason with that in the back of the mind. This was just the complete opposite.”

   The Jackets, all of them, rocked in Hawai’i after a wild journey. Four of five finished in the top 20, and all five finished in the top 29 in a field of 83.

   Senior Ollie Schneiderjans, the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur, was the only Tech player to stay steady start to finish over the fall schedule. He didn’t need that unplanned, cathartic jaunt through the jungle. As Albertson said, “He’s more of a tan-at-the-pool kind of a guy,” anyway.

   Schneiderjans easily led the Jackets in scoring average in the fall with a stroke average of 68.2, not to mention a record of 344-9.

  Petefish was second (71.67 in six of a possible 15 rounds). Everybody else: Albertson (72.00/15); Hines (72.00/12); Joiner (72.22/9), Czuchry (72.67/12), Clark (72.89/9); Whaley (73.00/9); and Pisciotta (79.33/3).

   Soon after 80 percent of his competing golfers emerged from the jungles of Hawai’i, Heppler could only shake his head at his team’s unintentional therapy. Albertson had a positive review.

   Of the Jackets’ performance, where a cumulative score of 55-under 809 fell one stroke shy of the program’s best-ever raw score and relation to par for an event, the senior would say, “we just really all clicked . . . we had a good atmosphere.

  “We played matches within the team on practice days, and had some good fun and trash talk. We were very loose, and . . . we felt like we escaped. It never felt so good to be back in civilization. We were relaxed, and just ourselves.”

   Heppler’s happy.

   Before Hawai’i, less so.

   The Jackets entered the fall under renovation after the May graduations of Bo Andrews, Seth Reeves and Richard Werenski from one of the nation’s top squads.

   With four freshmen in Joiner, Petefish, James Clark and Michael Pisciotta, and sophomores Hines and Vincent Whaley, re-tooling was imminent.

   The season began with promise, as Tech finished second in the Carpet Capital Classic (because South Carolina played extremely well over the final day-plus), and the Jackets captured a title in the DICK’s Sporting Goods Collegiate Challenge Cup in Kingston Springs, Tenn.

   Then, the Jackets imploded over the back nine on the final day of the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate in Vestavia Hills, Ala., to finish sixth.

   A spiral continued as Tech fired an eight-over par 296 in the first round of the U.S.C.C. to tie for 13th. Heppler wasn’t calling out newcomers after that mess. Drew Czuchry (72), Schneiderjans (73) and Albertson (79) were lagging the way.

   “When your seniors shoot that many over par, [the freshmen] aren’t going to cover that up,” the coach said after the round.

   The Jackets were much more themselves over the final two rounds at the U.S.C.C., but could only wait for another chance to prove that they are capable of being one of the nation’s top teams. That first round left them too far behind to place in this tournament; they finished tied for seventh in a tough field.

   Looking back, Heppler said that end result wasn’t as bad as some outsiders might think, and the Jackets’ inconsistency in the fall was practically predictable.

   “I felt like we played 27 bad holes [in the fall]. We were near the lead when we made the turn [in Alabama], and had a couple 40s. The first round was disaster at our tournament, but then we played as well as anybody.

  “When you go from five [steady, veteran] . . . you knew there would not be the same level of consistency against really, really good teams. I told them other than those 27 holes, everything else was pretty good. I think based on the fact that we were trying to find three new starters, it was a pretty good fall.”

  Schneiderjans and Albertson played every fall event, yet while Ollie was Tech’s leading scorer in all five events and finished in the top five each time with a win, Albertson was inconsistent (finishes of 18th, 13th, 27th and 76th before Hawai’i) , and Czuchry went up and down. He did not travel to Hawai’i.

  The rest of the lineup churned.

  At the U.S.C.C., Albertson struggled like never before over the first two rounds, and Czuchry tied for 46th with rounds of 72-73-75 (+4-220).

   Tech’s second-leading scorer, Hines, was competing as an individual rather than for the team (-1 215) and therefore did not count toward the team tally. Clark finished two strokes behind him, tied with Joiner and Petefish at +1 in 25th place, but Clark was also competing as an individual and like Hines did not count.

   Good thing Tech was left with an unusual do-over try.

   Most years, the U.S.C.C. marks the end of the fall season.

   This year, however, Heppler changed up the schedule for a couple reasons.

   With so many freshmen, he wanted to balance the fall and spring slates so that time spent away from academics would even out from one semester to the next, and Schniederjans has obligations in the spring that will sap his time.

    “We’re usually away 14 or 15 days in spring, and eight or nine in the fall. Our guys have handled it, but to stick these new guys under that . . . ” Heppler explained. “The other thing is Ollie is probably going to play at least two professional events in the spring.”

   With those pressures, Heppler earlier this year chose to lengthen the fall schedule and shorten the spring.

   On its face, that didn’t help Albertson.

   He’s on track to graduate in the spring, and he is – according to Heppler, not Anders – under pressure academically in that he’s in some classes where he is competing with business majors who are angling not only to graduate but get out in the world and land great jobs.

    Albertson wants to play pro golf, just like Schneiderjans, but he’s a competitor in the class room as well. Four times, he’s earned ACC All-Academic honors.

    Plenty of pressure is out there for all Tech students. For student-athletes, it is in some instances heavier. And with the prospect of graduation and a transition to playing golf for a living, perhaps there is more pressure still.

   “These kids go through a lot. He’s in some very demanding classes,” Heppler said. “At some point, the stress level in your life, your school, this is the last time he’s doing this, the world is coming for him in six months, he wants to show the world he can be a professional golfer . . .

   “Sometimes, the stress just gets to you. Sometimes, you play like it’s miles away, and sometimes it’s right around the corner. In six months, he has to take care of himself. I think in the end life just got on top of him. He just didn’t have him. It’s no different than what happened to Ollie at U.S. Open qualifying.”

   Heppler, assistant coach Brennan Webb and Albertson talked about having the senior skip the Hawai’i trip for his own good, so he could zero in on the academic and personal fronts.

   After the U.S.C.C., Albertson – a deep thinker – went about un-pressing.

   “I had help from so many different people. Little things and big things when I was struggling that meant a lot to me in so many different aspects of my life as a student, and then as a player, and as a friend,” he said. “People all over the place were helping me out. I really appreciated all that.

  “After U.S.C.C., it was pretty much ground zero. I have never felt better than this past week. Being in Hawaii, the views . . . being out there it’s hard to have a bad day with all that stuff in the background. I just remembered who I am and what I am, and had confidence in myself that I’d lacked in previous weeks.”

   Albertson was the ACC medalist in 2013, his sophomore season, has been All-ACC three times and earned All-America honors twice.

   He wanted nothing to do with sitting out Hawai’i, but Heppler made him earn his way. Schniederjans was exempted into the tournament, and the coaches had the other players compete in a qualifier for a second spot with the plan of coaches choosing the final three travelers after that.

   Albertson beat out Hines in a two-hole playoff for the second guaranteed spot.

   “He said he wanted to play. He’s never missed [a tournament in his college career]; that’s a big deal to him,” Heppler said. “There have been very few guys who have played every tournament [in their four-year Tech careers].

  “He did earn his way over. I think his confidence was up. He was able to clear his head from life and school, and he got back to who he is – a kid who plays All-America-level golf.”

   For a spell this fall, to a far greater degree than when he wobbled last spring, Albertons found vertigo on the links.

   He’s in a better place now.

   “It’s going to be a really good spring,” he said. “I want to go off on a good note as a senior, and hopefully help the team.”

   Heppler hopes the Jackets are better off, too, for having gone through what they have this fall.

  “I don’t think the lineup is settled at all,” he said. ” “If you can finish top eight [at U.S.C.C.], you know you’ve got a chance to make match play [in the NCAAs].  Our last two rounds were really, really good. This is a better way to end the season.”

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