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Golf Coach Bruce Heppler Optimistic About His Team

Sept. 4, 2009

ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s golf team, which begins the fall season at No. 11 in the first Golf World magazine rankings, is busy preparing itself for the 2009-10 year with six rounds of team qualifying over the next several days as it gets ready for the traditional season-opening Carpet Capital Collegiate, Sept. 11-13, in Rocky Face, Ga.

Head coach Bruce Heppler, whose program extended its string of consecutive years in the NCAA Tournament to 12 last spring and finished the year ranked No. 7 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, is optimistic about his group of players this year, which includes five returning letterwinners, led by 2008 second-team All-American Chesson Hadley, and three newcomers.

The Yellow Jackets, who won their third Atlantic Coast Conference title in four years last spring, lost two seniors who played regularly in three-time All-American Cameron Tringale and lefty David Dragoo. Hadley, who shook off a poor fall to record three top-20 finishes in the spring, returns as the team’s only senior.

Other returnees who played regularly in the spring are junior John-Tyler Griffin, who played every event a year ago and had the team’s second-best stroke average, and sophomore James White, who posted a pair of top-10 finishes in the spring, including the ACC Championship.

Junior Paul Haley and sophomore William Miller, who played just one event between them last year, look to make a push on the other veteran players along with a very good incoming class of players that includes freshmen Seth Reeves and Bo Andrews, each among the top two players in Georgia and North Carolina, respectively. Also joining the Jackets is transfer Kyle Scott, who won a Division II national championship at West Florida.

Heppler, in his 15th season on the Flats, also has made some changes in the team’s typical schedule this year, opting out of the Golfweek Preview Classic and the Isleworth-UCF Collegiate in the fall, replacing them with the Mason Rudolph Intercollegiate in Nashville, Tenn., and the UNCG Bridgestone Collegiate in Greensboro, N.C. Tech’s own United States Collegiate Championship will not be held this spring while the Golf Club of Georgia attempts to find new dates to hold the event in coming years. Instead, Heppler will take his team to the Linger Longer Invitational at Lake Oconee in Georgia and the Wolfpack Invitational in Raleigh, N.C.

Tech also is the host of one of the six NCAA Regional tournaments, which will be held in May at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course.

Your team made a move in the right direction last year, tying for third in the NCAA Regional and tying for 10th at the Finals, but you have lost your horse (Cameron Tringale). How difficult is it to replace a first-team All-American and four-time All-ACC player?

“Well it’s certainly not a knock on anyone on our team. There are some guys that certainly need to improve and make a move forward, but I think it’s going to have to be a group effort. Chesson Hadley, being an All-American twice, has a chance to be a first teamer, and John-Tyler Griffin has continued to really move forward, but he’s never been an All-American. You don’t know if those two players is going to jump in there and play like (Tringale).

“So where I think that we have to be better is at 2, 3, 4, and 5, and it ends up being a team-stroke average. Some people certainly have the ability, and I think where we’re going to have to make that up is in the scores towards the end of the lineup.”

Do you think you have a better chance with this group to have those decent scores, those counting-type scores, at the bottom of your lineup?

“From what I’ve seen, I think we will get more of a push than we’ve had in two or three years. I think that for someone to qualify for our travel team, they will have had to play under par or better to get to go. And with the courses that we’ve played at that’s pretty good. So I think that we may be able to get more of a push at the end of the lineup, forcing those guys to play better at home, which will then produce better scores on the road.”

Despite losing Tringale and three other seniors, you have a fair amount of experience on this team. Your five returning players have combined to play in 36 events. Are you happy with this nucleus?

“There are some guys in that group for whom it’s time that they really do move forward, lead with their scores as well as what they do on a day-to-day basis. They should know how to go to Georgia Tech and manage their time, because they’ve been around here for a while, and that allows the guys to have better practice and those kinds of things. So it’s a good mixture of both (young and old). I think we have a lot of enthusiasm among the new guys, which is always nice.”

Chesson Hadley has had a bit of an up-and-down career – a great sophomore year, started out poorly last year, but kind of got it back in the spring time. Where is he now with his game?

“He’s got to level out – his work level and his emotional level – and get to where there is some sort of consistency. The thing that he brings to the table is that, when he plays well, his ability level allows him to win tournaments. But there’s been enough of the other that I don’t know whether you can say it’s going to happen. The good news is that when he’s right, then he is the number 1 guy on the top-5 team.

And the other guy that you look who’s been coming is John-Tyler Griffin. The summer that he had, other than one round at the Dogwood Invitational, was really pretty tremendous. And even through last year, if you look at last year as compared to the year before, it’s better. And so can he move in to becoming an All-American, there’s no reason why he couldn’t. We have a lot of really nice pieces, but a lot of them have to fit together if we’re going to maintain where we’ve been for the last 25 years.”

Griffin was pretty good on the good golf courses as a freshman, had a couple of top 20’s last year and seemed to achieve a level of consistency. Is he just a steady guy?

“I think his level of consistency needs to move into 15th and higher, because if you go back and look at it, I think he had three top 5’s. So he’s gotten close to playing winning golf. But to be an All-American you can’t have a 35th or a 45th-place finish. The consistency needs to be at a higher level, and I think he’s close to doing that.”

James White and Minghao Wang showed a lot of promise as freshmen a year ago, with White posting a pair of top-10s and Wang one top-20. Describe them as players and assess their progress over the summer.

“We asked a lot out of both of those guys, and I think they learned a lot. I think they learned a lot about going to Georgia Tech, and I think they’ve gotten better on the golf course. Minghao had a very nice summer, James not so much, but he did qualify for the U.S. Amateur and came close to making match play. If they can become a little more consistent, then that’s where we start talking about getting this push. If those guys improve, and J.T. and Chesson improve, then we could have a really good team. We’re starting our year with a lot of `we really need this to happen’ and it certainly can.”

What about their games do White and Wang hang their hats on?

“Minghao works really hard on his fundamentals, and he can get in stretches where he can really draw the ball well. I think his next level is going to come with a little bit more feel in his game, and he’ll be able to do it with more shots than just a standard 5-iron. You’ve got to be able to adapt to situations from bentgrass to Bermuda to a golf course that’s flat to one that has slope changes, and that comes from just playing. He needs to play more styles of golf courses, but he’s got terrific fundamentals. He’s big, he’s got good length, and he’s very passionate about what he does.”

“James just wants to do the right thing. He just wants to work hard. I think his effort is why he got his spot last year. He outworked the other guys, hung in there and got his spot. James is a very good putter, he has a very good short game, and we need his long game to be a little more consistent. When that happens and his short game stays consistent, then those good scores come out and the high ones don’t show up.”

What does J.T. Griffin do well?

“J.T. hits the golf ball really well. And I think he’s fiddled a little bit with his putting this summer, and I think he’s putting better. When he hits those really good shots he needs to convert, but yeah he hits the golf ball really well.”

Paul Haley didn’t play last year but played a fair amount as a freshman and did some decent things. William Miller played the first event then didn’t play again. How do you look at them right now?

“We’ve got to restore some enthusiasm and restore some confidence. They’ve both gotten a little bit beat up here in qualifying and some not so great summers, but they’ve both seemed to return with `I’m ready to go fight this thing again and compete.’ You’ve got to do the right stuff, you’ve got to be consistent with your work and get your enthusiasm back, and then you can feel good about yourself. And now when you get to the tee when you’re qualifying, you can feel prepared. We’ve got to restore that in both those guys.”

You signed two of the top players from Georgia (Seth Reeves) and North Carolina (Bo Andrews) who are freshmen this year, what can you tell us about them?

“I think the greatest thing about both of them is the enthusiasm that they’ve brought. They want to win, they want to be on the team, they want to have a team-based culture, they want to hang out together, they want to practice together, they want to work together, they want to win together.

“Both of them are coming off really good high school programs where team was something, and that was a part of the whole recruiting process that they were drawn to. We tried to sell them that we’re going to have that, and they’ve done everything they can to fit in and work hard and be glad about being here. They’re coachable, they want to listen and learn, and we’re getting a lot more good stuff done everyday because of what they’ve brought.

“Seth is really a strong guy, a big left-handed player. Bo hits the ball straight. He’s in charge of his distances, and he has a very mature game for someone so young. They’re going to push, and that’s what we need.”

You accepted a transfer this year, Kyle Scott, who had a great performance record in Division II. Does that transfer better into Division I than someone coming straight out of high school?

“I think so. He has a national championship, he’s played in good college golf tournaments, and he knows how to go to college more so than the freshmen do. He’s in the boat with the other two guys when it comes to the newness of Georgia Tech and where we play. But from going to college and playing college golf, he probably has a mature outlook. He’s been in some battles and in some fights that the freshmen haven’t, and that’s probably where he has an edge over those two guys.”

What can you say about the way he plays?

“He’s really straight, has really good fundamentals, and he looks like someone who will not shy away from a challenge or a close match or win a tournament. I don’t think he’s afraid. He’s got a really good golf swing and good fundamentals, and when you get that, you just figure they have a chance to be a very good player.”

One of the things that plagued this bunch last year was putting. Do you see an improvement there with this bunch?

“We’re going to putt better. We’re going to be more positive about it. It’s one of those things like the measles, sometimes it spreads. But from what I’ve seen all through the new guys, they putt really well and I think it’s sort of like a vaccine, too. And all of a sudden you start seeing guys make putts and you think `well I’ve got to go make some of these myself’ and a few more of those go in.”

Your schedule has changed quite a bit this year – two new events in the fall and two new in the spring. Why the changes?

“The Preview (usually played on the same course as the NCAA Championship) is in Seattle and not at the Honors Course, plus it’s a two-day event. And we’re not going to get out of it what we used to in the past. So we’re playing in Vanderbilt’s tournament (Mason Rudolph Intercollegiate) on a good golf course, so that was kind of a good switch. We’ve got several guys from the team in North Carolina, and (the UNCG Bridgestone Collegiate) is at the site of where the PGA Tour has been played in the past. We’re trying something different, see some different teams.

“In the Spring we lost our tournament (the United States Collegiate Championship) for various reasons, and the UH-Hilo Intercollegiate became an exempt event, which gives us an opportunity to play a couple more tournaments, and still have two playing days available. We also get to play another time in Georgia (Linger Longer Invitational at Lake Oconee); we’ve heard it’s a great golf course. NC State is opening a new course, and that gives us the chance to play in the state of North Carolina.”

Why is the U.S. Collegiate Championship not being played this year, and what is the future of that event?

“In combination with the Georgia Cup, they have to close the golf course for too many days right around the Masters. It’s a very busy time of the year. We lost a couple of our major sponsors from outside the club, and it became a pretty significant burden on the membership to raise money to hold the event. So we’re going to look around and see if there’s another place in the year that it fits.”

You didn’t make the cut at the NCAA Finals last year. Despite that, how do you feel that the format played out? How did it work the first year?

“I thought it was tremendous. In the third round of stroke play, if you’re in 14th or 15th place and you’re trying to make the cut to play one more round, but you’re probably not going to win the tournament. With 20 holes left, if you’re 14th or 15th your chances of winning it with one round are pretty much gone. But I know that with 8 holes to go, those teams that were 13th or 14th playing for eight spots, you could still with the tournament. And it was awesome.

“I mean you were trying as hard as you could all the way in and you’re scoreboard watching because you knew you just needed to get in the top eight. I think it will draw more attention to what we do, and people say `well did the best team win?’ Yeah, the best team that week won, maybe not the best team of the year, and that’s okay. For the student-athletes, I think that it was a tremendous experience, and at the end of the day isn’t that kind of who it’s for? Before, only the team that won got all the credit, and no one else got any notoriety for finishing 5th or 6th. Now it’s eight teams, then four, then two – you’ve got pretty good stuff.”

You’ve won or shared three of the last four conference titles. How good is the league this year? Who are the best teams?

“Well, you know, they’re starting a little bit over at Clemson, but Larry is a great coach, and Larry’s always got good players. They’ll be inexperienced, much like some of what we’ve got. But he’s enthused about the attitudes and what he’s going to be working with as far at the chemistry with his team. Duke on paper probably has the most talent with the freshmen they’re bringing in and the people they’re returning. NC State has got a guy that won eight tournaments- it’s a nice place to start with Matt Hill. At this point I don’t think you can say that there is a (national) top-3 team, but I think it’s going to be a great year where six or seven teams legitimately that could win the tournament, which is really where we were last year.”

How many teams in the ACC do you think are top 25? Yours included?

“Probably starting the year, maybe four…maybe five. I don’t know where we are. I know we’re in a good place, I just don’t know where we are. We’re at a place where we could be good. I’m looking forward to this year more than I’ve looked forward to things in a long time. And hopefully that won’t change. Because I just feel that from 6 in the morning to 10 at night we’ve got a lot of good stuff going on. And over the years when that’s been the case, most times we’ve overachieved.”

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