#TGW: Springing Ahead

Feb. 1, 2018

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

– Georgia Tech golfers haven’t competed, at least in a college tournament, in more than three months, but they don’t seem worried about rust as they’re kicking off the spring season today in the Amer Ari Invitational.

And why should the Yellow Jackets worry about rust when they’re playing at the splendid Kings Course at the Waikoloa Beach Resort; they’re on the Kona coast of wonderful Hawai’i, after all.

Plus, they’ve soared to national rankings of No. 3 according to Golfstat and No. 4 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Index, and they’re deploying the most solid lineup they’ve had in a few years.

The core of the travel team of sophomores Tyler Strafaci, Luke Schniederjans and Andy Ogletree and freshman Noah Norton played in all four fall events, and senior Jacob Joiner played in three of four – one as a non-scoring individual. Senior Chris Petefish, who will play Amer Ari as an individual, played in all four fall events, two individually.

There appears to have been no slippage in practices and qualifying before Tech left Saturday for Hawai’i, and the Jackets feel great about themselves and their circumstances after playing multiple courses on the island since arriving.

Last fall boosted them.

“I think initially they thought they were good, and could be good, but once you have some success you go from hope to belief,” head coach Bruce Heppler said of a team that won two tournaments last autumn with second- and fourth-place finishes as well.

“It’s one thing to think you’re better than somebody, but when you beat them … you stand on the practice tee and look around and say, ‘Hey, we can beat these guys.’ Physically, this is probably as good a group as we’ve ever had, and the maturity is there.”

Twenty times Heppler has taken his team to the Amer Ari to kick off the spring season, and the Jackets have won five titles in 19 trips with six former players winning or sharing the individual medalist honors.

The coach likes the trip as an incentive for players to keep grinding after the fall season ends in late October, and it helps that the weather almost always cooperating although it can offer some unique challenges.

Tech likely will have to stand firm in this tournament, as the 18-team field includes 10 of the top 50 ranked teams, including No. 2 Oklahoma State, the No. 3 Jackets, No. 8 Auburn and No. 10 Stanford.

“One of the reasons is to reward guys who do what you ask them to do. It stays in guys’ minds over break,” Heppler said. “It’s a reward, a motivator. You play in the wind, get experience playing over different grass with this Bermuda. We just have to hang in there on the days that aren’t great.”

The Jackets like their chances this weekend, and this spring. They aim to return to the business of winning ACC titles come April 20-22 at Old North State Club in New London, N.C., where they will seek their 17th conference crown and first since 2015.

There will first be more golf in the spring than there was in the fall.

Tech tees up next in the Puerto Rico Classic Feb. 18-20 before participating in the General Hackler Championship March 10-11 in Myrtle Beach, the Valspar Collegiate Invitational March 18-20 in Palm City, Fla., and the Irish Creek Intercollegiate April 7-8 in Kannapolis, N.C.

It starts anew today in Hawai’i, and the Jackets have reasons to like their chances.

Joiner put together two top-10 finishes in three fall starts and leads the travel team with a 71.33 scoring average. He fired par or better in seven of his nine competitive rounds.

Strafaci played eight of 12 competitive rounds at par or better in the fall, when Schniederjans and Ogletree each did that seven times, and Norton six.

“We played a couple really cool places before the tournament started,” Heppler said. “It’s almost like the break never happened. Tyler played really played well in the qualifier. They were all pretty good over the break.”

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