JACK WILLIAMS COLUMN – Mar. 29, 2000
The Georgia Tech golf team has a No. 1 ranking in collegiate circles just like Tiger Woods has on the PGA Tour. The question is can the Jackets roar like Tiger roars when the chips are on the line.
Tech Coach Bruce Heppler thinks that can happen and so do his talented players.
“I think our players relish the pressure of a No. 1 ranking,” Heppler said. “I firmly believe it is a confidence booster for this particular team. Our players believe in each other. They expect to win when they go into competition.”
There are some good reasons why the Tech players expect to win. They have done it so dog-gone often. Three times already this school year, Tech has swept tournament championships against tough competition. The Jackets were first at the Carpet Capital Collegiate in Rocky Face, Ga., the Waikoloa Intercollegiate in Hawaii and the San Juan Shoot Out in Puerto Rico.
In his fifth season as Tech coach, Heppler says without blinking an eye, “This is my best team. The results prove that. Three tournament wins at this stage of the season is a special accomplishment and the scoring averages of our players are lower than ever before.”
The Jackets are led by two of college golf’s premier players, senior Matt Kuchar and junior Bryce Molder.
Kuchar currently is ranked No. 1 nationally in the Mastercard Collegiate Rankings and Molder holds third spot. The Tech team is rated No. 1 by Mastercard, just ahead of Northwestern and Tech’s Atlantic Coast Conference rival Clemson.
Kuchar, of Lake Mary, Fla., has bolted back to prominence this season after going through a mild slump in 1998-99. He was a terror early in his collegiate career, sweeping the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1997 and wowing ’em at Augusta National in 1998 as the “darling” of the Masters galleries and low amateur in the prestigious event. He was the NCAA East Regional Champion and ACC Golfer of the Year in 1998 and made the All-America team that season.
“Matt is almost back to the form he showed two years ago,” Heppler said. “There’s still a little room for improvement. He hasn’t shown the overall consistency we would like.”
Inconsistency has been no problem for the dynamic Molder.”With Bryce, you have a good idea what you’re going to get when he goes into a tournament,” Heppler said. “He’s a two-time All-America and is on target to make it three years in a row.”
Heppler, in fact, believes Molder will become only the fourth collegiate player to make All-America four straight years. One of the three who accomplished that feat was Tech’s David Duval, now one of the game’s leading pros. The others were Phil Mickelson of Arizona State and Gary Hallberg of Wake Forest.
Molder, of Conway, Ark., was the 1998 Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year and the 1999 ACC Player of the Year.
Joining Kuchar and Molder in the spotlight has been sophomore Kris Mikkelsen, a sophomore from Woodstock, Ga., who shot a closing 69 and tied for eighth in the strong field at San Juan.
Heppler says Mikkelsen’s strong suit is his competitive attitude. “He’s a very positive young man,” Heppler said. “He’s an excellent short iron player and a good putter.”
Others who have helped Tech reach such lofty heights are Carlton Forrester of Gainesville, Ga., playing his best golf as a senior; surprising Troy Matteson of Austin, Texas; Matt Weibring of Plano, Texas; and Wes Latimer of Woodstock, Ga.
“Troy Matteson has been a pleasant surprise,” Heppler says. “He has qualified for all seven tournaments in which we have played. He got into the middle of the fight for the individual championship at Las Vegas. It was good experience for him and he’ll handle it better next time.”
Tech looks ahead to the BIG THREE of the school year-the ACC Championships at Uwharrie Point, N.C., the NCAA East Regional at Glenmaura National Club in Scranton, Pa., and the NCAA Championship at the Grand National Club in Opelika, Ala.
Before Tech can take aim at the national title, the Jackets first must take care of business in their own conference. “There really are about four teams that could win the ACC,” Heppler said. “Clemson is outstanding. We have come out ahead of them in four of the five tournaments in which we both have played. But it’s been close each time. North Carolina and Duke are much improved and Wake Forest can be very good. The ACC is rugged.”
The Jackets have won the NCAA East Regional two years in a row, but surprisingly, played poorly in the NCAA Tournament last June at Hazeltine National in Edina, Minn. It really stung when arch-rival Georgia won the crown. Heppler thinks the Jackets might fare better in this year’s tourney at Opelika.
“The good thing is the tournament will be played in the southeast where most of our players are from and where we practice and play most of the time,” Heppler said. “In Minnesota, it was an entirely different style of golf because of the climate and the conditions. It likely will be humid in Alabama in June. We are accustomed to that.”
Heppler knows a thing or two about winning NCAA Championships. He helped pull that trick as an assistant coach under veteran Mike Holder at Oklahoma State in 1995 when the Cowboys beat Stanford and Tiger Woods in a sudden death playoff.
“Before we knew there would be a playoff, I had driven one of our players, an Irish kid, to the airport. He was headed for England to participate in the British Open,” Heppler said. “Oklahoma State had only four players whose scores would count in the sudden death playoff while Stanford had five to choose from. Still, Oklahoma State won. Two of our players, Chris Cox and Alan Bratton, had birdies. Stanford had four pars and a bogey. I remember Tiger Woods missed about a 12-foot birdie putt.”
Heppler hopes Tech can work some magic like that this June. One thing for sure, he has a team on a mission. The Jackets hope to prove they can win the big one. They want to have that No. 1 ranking when it matters most-when all the shots have been fired.