April 16, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
It’s not for nothing that James White so looks forward to this week’s trip. When Georgia Tech travels to New London, N.C., to play the ACC Championship at the Old North State Club, good things tend to happen, plus certain hunger pangs tend to be vanquished.
The Yellow Jackets have won three straight conference titles there and White has enjoyed the ride every time. He loves the goodies, too, like the house the team stays in year after year and an overall feeling of familiarity that creates a sense of home.
That will change a little as White and sophomore Richy Werenski will be the only Tech players to have played ONS previously. When they practice Thursday and compete Friday through Sunday, freshmen Ollie Schniederjens and Anders Albertson and redshirt sophomore Bo Andrews will make their first laps.
Ritual will nonetheless drive the show, with perhaps some brainwashing riding shotgun.
“We do a big grocery run on our way to the house; that’s the huge, ACC-grocery run. We go in there, and it’s whatever you want. It’s beautiful,” White said. “We hop off the airplane and before we’re halfway to the house, we’re at Food Lion . . . and we have a tradition of waffles and ice cream before the final round. We’ll always do that.
“What I’m going to try to do is convince the guys that for whatever the reason we’ve got mojo there. We’ve won with experienced guys, we’ve won with inexperienced guys and to just believe that for whatever reason good stuff happens there and good stuff is going to happen to you.”
The Jackets will leave Wednesday for North Carolina, where coach Bruce Heppler’s squads have won outright or shared eight ACC titles. It wasn’t always that way.
Tech finished last and next-to-last in his first two seasons at the helm. The transition from there to here was accelerated in the early years by Heppler digging in and protesting the absence of any rule that prohibited ACC schools from practicing at the Old State North during the season. Several other schools are quite close, but for the Jackets and some other squads within the conference that wasn’t an option.
The Jackets have largely ruled the place over the past decade plus.
“I just think that it’s similar to the courses that we play,” White said. “The greens are pretty quick, quicker than what most of the other [competitors] are playing. It’s similar to the Golf Club of Georgia a little bit, the grasses are similar. We feel comfortable there.”
Getting cozy is key.
Heppler and assistant Christian Newton have a different task than last, when three seniors and White had already won two titles over ONS. Those guys could find their way around in the dark.
Andrews has been up there, but not yet wet his feet between the ropes. For Schniederjens and Albertson, this will be an altogether maiden voyage.
Beyond the course itself, there is the situation. Heppler believes that his team, which was impressive last time out in finishing second in the Gary Koch Invitational in Tampa, is plenty capable of bringing home more ACC hardware – if the Jackets don’t try too hard.
“I think our advantage is we’ve won the tournament a lot of times, we don’t have to prove anything, we’re going to the NCAA Tournament . . . if we can get our five guys to the first tee and just play Old North State and not think about beating Clemson, or Duke, or Virginia, then I think we’ve got a chance to be the most relaxed team,” he said.
“These other schools, all they’re talking about is, ‘We’re tired of this. It’s our time. We’ve got these recruits. This has got to end.’ I think they’ll be thinking about us, and we need to get five guys to think about hitting one about 310 down the middle and a four iron on the green and a two-putt for a birdie.”
That may not be as simple as Heppler telling his team the way he sees things.
It’s too soon to know for sure, but it’s possible that rather than amble around the course hither and yon while keeping tabs on everybody, Heppler may walk it with Schneiderjens and Newton may join Albertson. The coaches caddied those two in Tampa so that if they opt to work that way over ONS, it won’t come as a shock.
“We’ll probably have to work harder at certain things,” the head coach said. “The crew that went up there last year had already won, had already been there, so it was really easy to just say, ‘Play the round, go back to the house, play some ping-pong, catch some fish, de-compress. It was easy because they already know how to do it.
“We’ll probably be a little more involved. We may do a little walking and helping guys. This will be round 47 for me (at ONS); I know where you need to go, where you don’t want to go. [The player] has got to carry the clubs. It may be the thing to do. Sometimes, you can save a guy some shots. Maybe, maybe not. I may just walk up and say, ‘Go get it.'”
These Jackets are again talented. They’re not necessarily certain of their place in the universe, however, so Heppler, Newton and even White have psychological work to do. The course up there is similar to one of Tech’s frequent practice sites.
So, treat it that way.
“I think there’s still some guessing going on as to how good we are,” Heppler said. “Just go play. We’re not going to North Carolina; we’re going to the Golf Club of Georgia. Just play like we’re at the Golf Club and not the ACC tournament.”
If only the Jackets had a hypnotist on retainer. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org@gmail.com.