#TGW: Like Being at Home

April 18, 2018

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

– For a roughly a generation Georgia Tech has worn the title of Lord of the Ring in men’s golf in the ACC, and so the Yellow Jackets feel good about themselves ahead of the conference championship — even though some of them are not sure where they’re going.

The fifth-ranked Jackets will meet their conference comrades for three competitive rounds Friday through Sunday at the Old North State Club in New London, N.C., where Tech has captured 10 of its 16 ACC titles.

Old North State has been home to the ACCs for years, and like a second home to Georgia Tech, but the tournament was moved to South Carolina last year when the conference moved several sports championships out of North Carolina for political reasons.

Head coach Bruce Heppler figures to deploy freshman Noah Norton if he is deemed healthy, three sophomores and a senior. So, even as the Jackets go in favored to win a title that Tech has won or shared eight of the last 12 years — the next highest-ranked team will be No. 15 Clemson — this will be new for most of the team.

Seniors Chris Petefish and Jacob Joiner have been there and done that, although if Norton is good to go upon arrival only one of them may play in the ACCs.

It will not be a completely foreign experience for first-time sophomores Luke Schniederjans, Andy Ogletree and Tyler Strafaci.

They’ve all heard plenty about the place, and have a notion of what’s ahead even before arriving for practice Thursday at the stately course between Charlotte and Greensboro. They can thank Heppler, technology and their forebears. Old North State is similar to Tech’s primary practice course, The Golf Club of Georgia, in Alpharetta.

“I’ve mapped out the whole course. I know what I’m going to hit off every tee,” Strafaci said. “I’ve looked at it on Google Earth. Pretty much what I do is pick the widest spot in the fairway … I’ve kind of been at Golf Club every day getting ready for that.”

Heppler treats this tournament differently than others.

He’s helmed 11 of Tech’s 16 ACC golf championship teams in his 25 years, and in his mind, Old North State is a good fit for his team, right down to the bentgrass greens that mimic those at the Golf Club.

Yet he’s cautious not to over-stuff his student-athletes’ heads.

“If you look on [the PGA] Tour, guys go back to the same places every year, places where they’ve had success. I’m trying to create success for them,” the coach said.

“I’ve tried to put it in their mind that this place is perfect for us all the while trying not to make too big a deal of it, because as [Jack] Nicklaus said, winning majors is easiest because half the field take themselves out of it because they make too big a deal out of it.”

These Jackets know success. They’ve won three tournaments since the school year began, and their record over nine events is 109-16. Tech is 12-4 against ACC foes, twice finishing ahead of Clemson and twice behind.

They’re most familiar with Tigers, who won the last tournament Tech played, the Irish Creek Intercollegiate April 7-8 in Kannapolis, N.C., even though Clemson was without sophomore Doc Redman. He was playing as an amateur in The Masters by virtue of winning last summer’s U.S. Amateur.

Tech was tied with Clemson after the first round of that tournament before the weather turned awful. The Jackets finished third and believe they gained from the experience.

“The Irish Creek tournament was the hardest conditions I think anybody has played in, and I think just getting through that is a benefit,” Ogletree said. “It was literally the worst conditions I’ve ever played in. We know nothing is going to be harder than that.

“I’ve been watching video of the course on ACC.com and I’ve heard so much about it from the older guys and coach.”

Norton missed Irish Creek after sustaining an injury in practice that week.

Joiner played, and tied Petefish for low Jacket as both players finished in 12th place at 4-over par 217.

The Jackets will take six players to Old North State, and if Norton feels good to go after a couple practice rounds, he’ll play and one of the seniors likely will not. Norton leads Tech with a 71.29 scoring average and four top-10 finishes in eight outings.

No matter who plays, the Jackets and their coach look forward to this tournament as Clemson, No. 20 Florida State, No. 18 North Carolina and Wake Forest loom.

Several years ago, Heppler found a rental house next to a lake on the course and players have long loved the ping-pong table there and the freedom to step out back and go fishing. The place is as much a decompression chamber as anything, and each evening the head coach whips up a special concoction of waffle/ice cream sandwiches with chocolate syrup.

Plus, the Jackets will take a charter flight.

“This is the only time we do it. I just decided a long time ago that this is a really big event,” Heppler said of the Jackets’ travel plans. “For other schools, it’s about an hour from their campuses. We just to try to make it special.

“It’s the first time all year we’ve used the word championship associated with a tournament. It’s the first one where you have a chance to get a ring. This mean more.”

Schniederjans has seen Old North State, and he looks forward to playing there after watching his brother Ollie win the ACCs in 2014 when the Jackets also finished on top.

“That’s kind of where the tradition is of Georgia Tech golf, with the success we’ve had there. I drove up with my dad on a Sunday morning in the middle of the night to watch him play his junior year when he won individual in the rain,” Luke said. “I talked to him [Sunday] night and had him draft me some notes.

“It’s a lot like Golf Club of Georgia, and that’s why they’ve had success there in the past because it’s so similar to our home course. Coach puts a big emphasis on going to practice out there. The greens receive similar wedge shots and tee shots.”

Ever edgy, Heppler feels as close to home at Old North State as anywhere, and he’s trying to get the Jackets to feel as good about the place as he does.

“How do you make it a big deal without making it a big deal? I don’t know. We’ll see how we do,” he coach said. “There’s fun to be had. You can go fish off the dock, and then again it’s the lucky house. It’s the lucky house.

“The key in the postseason is not playing better than you played all year. It’s playing as close to the way you’ve played all year. You don’t need to all of the sudden be better. So much of belief in this sport can become reality. I probably give off a more confident vibe than I normally do.”

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