May 29, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
The human merry-go-round that is Georgia Tech’s golf team hit the road Sunday, traveling into the maw that is Stillwater, Okla., robust in collective non-belief.
Four times the Yellow Jackets have finished national runners-up on the links, often with odd circumstances attached.
There was the time that Minnesota rallied from 15 strokes behind to win when, had the 36-hole cut been in effect that year, the Gophers would’ve been sent home. Another time, there was a scorecard problem. On yet another occasion, Oklahoma State beat the Jackets in a playoff.
Even a (oxymoron alert!) low-grade lawyer could advance the argument that where Tech and national golf titles are linked, a jinx is in play.
The Jackets do not believe that.
Tech is deep. The Jackets have no pecking order, no point guard, no go-to scorer, just a quintet of golfers who can do it all on any given day. Seniors John-Tyler Griffin, Kyle Scott and Paul Haley, and junior James White have rotated over the fall and spring seasons as top Jacket.
Knowing you don’t have to score super low to carry your team, nor go conservative for fear that a teammate will bottom out and drag the team score down, well, let Scott explain:
“It’s a nice feeling to have. You go out there with no pressure. I feel like you free up a little bit because you’re not trying to protect a score; you’re going out there to play your best golf. I think that’s been helping us this year. We have that belief in each other.”
Never mind that No. 1 Oklahoma State is hosting the NCAA Tournament Tuesday-Sunday at Karsten Creek, which qualifies as corporal punishment even before taking into consideration the fact the top-ranked Cowboys call the place home.
You win NCAA titles with depth, and, yes, a bit of good fortune.
No team in the nation can trump the Jackets on the former.
White has won twice. Haley has won twice. Scott has been runner-up in the past three tournaments. Griffin has probably been the overall most consistent.
Ranked Nos. 2 and 4 nationally, the Jackets are built for the first three days of the tournament, which will be stroke play.
The top eight teams after those three days will advance to match play, where for the third year in a row a still-new format – written up by Tech’s own Bruce Heppler and approved by his peers and the NCAA – will create remarkable drama.
Tech is not a team where if the No. 1 or 2 golfer goes in the tank, the squad is cooked. That’s because there is no No. 1 or No. 2 golfer, and all five golfers are capable of scoring big – which is to say low.
Griffin and Scott lead the team with a 71.4 stroke average, and White is next at 71.5. Haley – who won the ACC tournament – is at 72.9. Freshman Richard Werenski has averaged 73.8. Tech’s drop score (teams drop the lowest of five scores in each round) has been the best in the nation most of the school year.
The Jackets are No. 1 in the nation against par, averaging 2.08 strokes below.
Want an example? Haley won the final two tournaments of the regular season, including the ACCs, but did not score in the NCAA regionals – his score was dropped all three days. The Jackets were still runners-up on a course that was likely the toughest played in six NCAA regionals scattered around the nation.
“I’ve been beaten by all my teammates at some point this year, and I’ve been playing my best golf,” White said. “So it definitely gives me a lot more assurance and a more relaxed feeling that if I’m not giving it my best somebody is going to be playing well.”
This doesn’t happen by accident. Heppler and assistant Christian Newton recruit fantastic talent, and coach it up. Chemistry applies in college golf, and the Jackets build it.
“If you have five guys through the lineup that can really play well . . . you have enough to make up the difference [if someone struggles],” Heppler said. “Knowing when we tee off that any one of those five guys could be your low guy, and you’re not thinking, `If I screw up . . . ` These guys trust each other.”
Oklahoma State will have an advantage in stroke play, but that will be mitigated somewhat in match play. The Jackets like their chances.
“We’re probably one of the deepest teams in college,” Haley said. “It’s such a crapshoot, but as consistent as we’ve been we feel we have a great chance to make match play, and if we get into match play anything can happen.”
Perhaps this time will be the charm.
“I gave Paul a putting lesson before the ACCs and he went out there and beat me,” Scott said. “If a guy does have a bad round, we’ll have a chat at the end and if he does want help we’ll help him, and if not, we’ll let him be. We’re all helping each other out. We have a great bunch of guys.”
I’m liking the Jackets’ chances. If you have thoughts, fire away at firstname.lastname@example.org. Going to Stillwater? Visiting Eskimo Joe’s? Tell us about it.