#TGW: Springing Ahead

March 25, 2017

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

– It took a day to get it all straight, but once Tyler Strafaci found the vibe and Georgia’s Tech’s golf team unearthed the mojo that it has been seeking for the longest time, the Yellow Jackets rolled.

Not far from home, the freshman from Davie, Fla., pounded his way through the Valspar Collegiate Sunday-Tuesday to bank a tournament title, the third for Tech this season, which is in a way odd because the Jackets overall have performed below their standards. Strafaci’s two-under par 211 paced the field, and he and his teammates boosted their confidence heading into the home stretch.

There’s only one more tournament, the Clemson Invitational on April 7-9, before the ACC Championship. That’s where the Jackets want to go really low to track the tradition of a program that has won 16 conference titles, including 11 of the last 18.

So, yes, they feel good after their cumulative score of 559 over the final two rounds tied Oklahoma State for best in the field, finishing ahead of five teams ranked ahead of them, including the No. 3 Cowboys. The big one’s coming, and the Jackets are playing well and feeling good after having tied for third place a little more than a week earlier in the Seminole Intercollegiate at Florida State.

“Oh yeah, I think our team’s really starting to get into a good gear,” Strafaci said after firing a two-under par 69 in the final round over the 7,114-yard Floridian National Golf Club. “We’re playing the best golf we have all year. If we get off to a good start, we have a good shot to win.”

That’s a Jackets’ rub for the 22nd-ranked Jackets, that first round.

With a young team upon which Strafaci and fellow freshmen Luke Schniederjans and Alex Ogletree have carved out prominent roles among Tech’s five travelers, this team has frequently bombed itself with one horrendous round among three in nearly every tournament. The difference between their best and worst scores in seven stroke-play events, not counting the Cypress Point Classic match play event last fall where they reached the finals after upsetting No. 20 Georgia and No. 12 Stanford, has been 19, 12, 11, 10, 13, four and 23 points.

In four events, including the Valspar by miles, that worst round was the first. Yes, the wind was up Sunday at The Floridian, and everybody scored high. Tech was in ninth place at the close of day.

“It was pretty nasty the first day, and it was part of the challenge of having new guys play an event,” said head coach Bruce Heppler. “First time we played on a championship golf course with championship conditions. We don’t want to talk about [bum first rounds] because guess who doesn’t talk about it?

“It turns into a free show contest, [where] you’ve told a guy he’s not very good at taking free throws [and it becomes more mental]. I’m just going to attribute it to a bunch of guys who want to play well [and being nervous at the start].”

Strafaci has been surging since making the travel team just once in the fall. Since the Christmas break, he tied for 13th in the Amer Ari Invitational, rallied from a first-round 80 in the Puerto Rico Classic with rounds of 71-73 to finish 48th in the field of 75, and then tied for 18th in a field of 81 in the Seminole Intercollegiate.

His adjustment to college golf has had less to do with the academic rigors of Tech, and more to do with details on the course. Over time, he turned to assistant coach Drew McGee and volunteer assistant Jeff Pierce – a teaching pro – for help.

“I got here in the fall, and I felt pretty good. My golf game was struggling, but I felt really on top of my school and college life,” he explained. “I was putting poorly. I started working with Jeff Pierce on my putting, and assistant coach Drew McGee with short game and chipping. This tournament, everything just kind of clicked. Working with assistant coaches really helped.”

If the Jackets are going to get to the winner’s circle, it will certainly be partially attributable to a gathering of chemistry.

That’s an odd thing in college golf, which is a team sport played by a lot of student-athletes who have not been in team situations. Some of them play high school golf on teams, but for the most part they play junior golf individually, much like young tennis players.

So, the concept of one-for-all and all-for-one are not native to these young men.

That’s hard to recruit. Even University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriema, whose teams have won an NCAA-record 108 consecutive games and the last four national titles, spoke about the importance of such matters recently.

Heppler showed video of Auriemma to his team, with emphasis on a few of Geno’s primary points: “If you’re not able to have tremendous appreciation for when your teammates do well … we put a huge premium on body language. If your body language is bad, you will never get the game. EVER! If you’re not engaged in what’s happening [whether playing or not], you will not ever play. EVER! I don’t care how good you are.”

The formation of chemistry among the Jackets has been like painting on torn canvas.

Senior Vincent Whaley and fifth-year senior Michael Hines have both been on, and traveled, with tremendous teams, ACC championship/NCAA Tournment teams. Yet with all the green talent on this squad, they’ve struggled to break the lineup. It didn’t help Whaley that he had all kinds of mechanical issues in his game as Tech returned to school last summer.

Whaley earned his way back onto the travel squad for the Seminole Intercollegiate, yet struggled over the first two rounds at the Valspar, failing to log a counting score.

His one-under par 70 counted on Tuesday though, in the final round, when stacked with the 69s of Strafaci and junior James Clark and Ogletree’s 70.

“I’m so proud of Vince his last round,” Heppler said. “It demonstrates to our other younger guys, he got over his own personnel disappointment and said, ‘I’m going to go out for the team. The message at dinner [Monday] was … you have five guys playing for each other.

“I’ve got all kinds of stories from 30 years of coaching of guys getting over themselves. He demonstrated that. He taught those young guys a big lesson Tuesday. It was a huge moment for us. He’s struggled all year. He’s not been happy with stuff, but he showed those guys that it’s not about me; be happy for the team.”

Strafaci was happy.

“We didn’t play horrible,” he said. “We started on the worst part of the golf course with the wind [the first day]. That was probably the most solid we’ve played all year.”

“The last 18 months have been really tough to swallow,” he said. “I think we can be really good.”

But now, Heppler has a good feeling.

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