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'If We Can Just Go Out and Have Fun...'

Jan. 26, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

It was one of the very first assignments, and it was strange first for the sight of large women whose jerseys read, “C.C.C.P.”

The Seoul games were upcoming, and the Soviet squad played a friendly against the U.S., in one of the gyms on the Atlanta University Campus. I don’t remember which one; this was 1988.

Having played a little handball in college, I figured covering team handball would not be a big deal.

Handball and team handball are different as night and dawn, and that was clear upon seeing big ladies who’d come from afar hurling a cantaloupe-sized ball at what looked like a junior soccer goal.

Similarly, I thought I could piece together college golf … until in recent years I met Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler, and began paying some attention to the Yellow Jackets.

As Tech prepares to leave Saturday to go afar, to begin the spring season in the Amer Ari Invitational in Waikoloa, Hawai’i, the game you might see in your mind’s eye is not the one they play.

Golf is so cerebral, and that goes beyond decision-making on the course to confidence or lack thereof, and decisions made away from the game that lead to performance on it.

This was demonstrated last fall when the talented, but generally young and inexperienced Jackets played up and down, way up and way down. Finally, they imploded on the back nine of the final event of the season, the U.S. Collegiate Championship, to not only blow a sizable lead but finish in fourth place in Alpharetta — as hosts.

A year earlier, Heppler was tickled because he felt that his team’s runaway win in the USCC would be a fantastic springboard for the more important spring.

This year? Eh, the ol’ coach said he’s going to bridle himself, take a different approach than is customary because he and assistant Christian Newton have analyzed this team and decided to handle with care. Bust out the kid gloves.

“Five guys all played poorly [on that fateful back nine]. Rarely does that happen,” Heppler said. “I was really shocked. There’s a lot of drive and ambition in this group and guys who want to make their mark. I think they just tried too hard.

“Coach and I talked, and the main thing we have to do is … I’ve got to kind of check my emotions and expectations at the door. If we can just go out and have fun … “

This is counter-intuitive to Heppler.

Golf is a pressure sport, and he is not one to try to shield his players from that. Shoot, he sometimes induces it.

Results have been bodacious.

In his 15 years at Tech, the Jackets have won or shared eight ACC titles — including the past three — and they’ve been to the NCAAs every season. One of these days they’re going to win that thing.

Frankly, despite having two freshmen (Ollie Schniederjans, Anders Albertson) and other players with modest experience (sophomores Seth Reeves, Bo Andrews, Richy Werenski and Drew Czuchry) who will be in the middle of everything this spring, Heppler’s not going to count out this squad.

He doesn’t hope to be in the mix at the NCAAs at the Riviera Country Club in June; he expects to be there.

“This may be as good a group as we’ve ever had here with what goes on day in and day out. I could not be happier,” the coach said. “They’re coachable, they listen, they work, they do everything you ask them to do.”

At first sound, it appears Heppler is going to try to guide this squad a more than direct it. Perhaps the collective talent is great enough that the Jackets can create their own inertia if external pressures are reduced.

They’re not as hardened as last year’s squad, which had three grizzled seniors and junior James White (who ended up earning first-team All-America honors).

But they’re darned good.

“We had three coulda-woulda days on the back nine [last fall]; we won one. In this sport it’s not rare to have a bad back nine; it’s just not a predictable sport,” said Schniederjans, who led the Jackets in qualifying for the Hawai’i trip. “We know what can happen.

“We want to win individually. Golf is not traditionally a team sport. It’s all about individual performances. During the round, you really don’t know how it’s going [with teammates] … none of us are focused on what the other guys are doing. We’re in our own worlds.”

So there’s the task of juggling multiple solar systems.

Heppler and Newton have both on multiple occasions verified my suggestion that just about all players at the nation’s top college programs arrive with most shots already in their bags.

They all require work on their brains, though, and not just their golf brains. The decisions these guys make off the course bear on what they do on it, as recent graduate Paul Haley’s career suggests.

He meandered through his first three years at Tech on and off the course, and then dialed in for his senior year — off and then on the course, in that order. He grew up.

All he did was take medalist honors at the ACC Tournament last spring, and then battle through an arduous qualifying process to earn full-time status on the Nationwide Tour (and limited PGA status) mere months after graduating. That’s nowhere near easy.

The Jackets will begin their spring as Heppler has for years with trips to Hawai’i and Puerto Rico, but he’s changed up his approach from there. Tech is not traveling to Las Vegas third. That hasn’t been good to the Jackets in recent years. Instead, after a tournament at Florida State, they’ll head to Los Angeles for a very rare dual meet March 18 with UCLA, another of the nation’s elite programs.

From there, they’ll head down the California coach to play March 22-23 in the Barona Collegiate Cup near San Diego.

Something tells me they’ll find their way onto Riviera C.C. while they’re out West, you know, for a little practice while on spring break.

All the while, Heppler figures to alter the state of his of coaching, even with his returning All-America player.

White lost track of himself and struggled last fall, and while he is traveling to Hawai’i — with Schniederjans, Albertson, Andrews, Werenski and Reeves — the last team spot remains up in the air. He or Reeves will man that post, and the other will play as a non-scoring individual.

“I think the moment [down the stretch at the USCC] just got a little big, and they were trying really, really hard,” Heppler said of his team. “They hit a few bad shots, and a little panic set in. Like somebody said, ‘You don’t ever get golf.’

“As you have success, your expectations rise and so do those that others have for you. [White] wants to do well, he wants to carry the load, he wants to be the guy. Just go do your deal. It’s an individual game until we add up the scores. Hopefully, the other guys will play well, and he can just go back to being James.”

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