April 19, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
With the ACC Tournament coming up fast, it’s a good time to talk to Bruce Heppler, the man whose teams have won four straight conference titles. He is, as you may have read here, quite the manager of players and their personalities.
But the Georgia Tech coach’s first read is not always right.
Pegging one of Tech’s three seniors or junior James White as the most consistent golfer of the year wouldn’t be right because Paul Haley rolled early last fall (and won outright last weekend), Kyle Scott has the most top-five finishes this school year (four), and J.T. Griffin has the most top-10 efforts (six) and top-20 (eight).
In one regard, though, Griffin has been the most level of them all. He’s been a steady hand at Tech since arriving from Wilson, N.C., which is not terribly far from where the Yellow Jackets will go for five in a row Friday through Sunday.
Emotionally, he’s not an outwardly up-and-down guy — period.
For a time, this kinda chewed away at Heppler on the inside, not that he wants his guys flaming all over the course. There’s a way to act, and ways not to act.
“There’s anger, discouraged, frustrated . . . those are all different looks [and] there are guys whose blood runs at a different temperature,” the coach said. “You may see a small fit of anger and think, `I’d like to see them stop that.’ But it really is about how quickly they get themselves [together].
“J.T. . . . rarely do you see that. I know it happens inside, but his nature is really not to respond. For Kyle, it’s been a challenge, flipping clubs and doing things that demonstrate that he’s frustrated. We’ve explained to him that before you can control that, you’ve got to control your body language.”
Scott, the elder statesman of the team at 24 (he was out of sport and school for a couple years coming from South Africa, then redshirted in the first of three seasons at Division II West Florida) is more emotional than Griffin. Part of Heppler’s point is that it’s all relative.
For a while, a thought counter-intuitive to Heppler’s point about controlling one’s emotions in competition was actually driving him bananas. Griffin always acted that way, even in practice, where Heppler’s mind games didn’t seem to be taking effect a few years ago . . . at least not in Griffin.
“J.T. tries very hard to portray a cool, even-keeled, easy-going guy, but he’s a competitive guy,” the coach said he has come to learn. “He’s made an effort, for whatever reason, to appear very nonchalant. Sometimes, as a coach, in practice that’s not a great thing. [You’re thinking], `It doesn’t seem to matter.’
“I probably tried to talk him into trying harder, to show that it matters, and that was probably a mistake.”
Time cleared Heppler’s picture of Griffin.
My view crystallized in much less time, and through conversation.
In my probing of a young man’s composure, Griffin set me straight.
First, he concurred with what his coach figured out over years: golf means plenty to him. And like Heppler suggested when he said it was probably not right for the coach to push so hard, Griffin agreed that it did not help much. He had two top-10 finishes his first two Tech seasons, and 12 since with up to three outings left.
“It was really hard. I’m just kind of a free spirit, and I really try not to harp on the bad things,” Griffin said. “It doesn’t make it better by being emotional, and I think coach mistook that as not caring. I’m one of the most competitive people around. It was hard [to hear] him to say, `I feel like you don’t really care.’ “
There is evidence that everybody is the better for it now. Griffin’s stroke average of 71.3 is best on the team this school year. He’s one stroke under par for the fall and spring seasons combined while White (71.7) and Scott (71.8) are at even par with Haley (73.8) one-over.
“Once you get to be around guys and understand them, you realize it does matter,” Heppler said. “Sometimes it matters too much, and for him when it matters too much he struggles. This gives him the best chance to function.
“You watch the work happen, the effort that he puts in . . . in the beginning, it wasn’t clear how bad he wanted it. It’s become clearer the last two years.”
Griffin has this feeling that he may have helped Heppler become an even better coach. That has to count for something.
“I think we’ve both grown from that,” he said. “I think it was good for coach to have a guy like that to where if he has another one, he’ll have an idea. It was never anything personal.”
Not all happy endings are happy.
Having spent decades around athletics and athletes, I could not shake this disconnect: those who tend to be the most competitive, and successful, far more often than not have an inner drive that invariably manifests itself not only in athletic performance but in behavior.
How has Griffin come to defy that rule of thumb? What is it about him that is different? Turns out he may not be a free spirit as he said, but rather have a spirit once and forever burdened. That heavy spirit makes him.
Never mind the question . . . here’s the answer on how he came to be:
“I kind of had a dramatic loss of a sister earlier in life, and it put things in perspective and taught me not to dwell on negative things,” Griffin said. “I saw her in the hospital for three years . . . it was a way of life. I was 14, she was 7. I donated bone marrow.”
Leukemia won. Griffin lost. Then, he evolved and emerged.
“It was March 28, 2002 . . . it kind of hit hard to me,” he said. “I just want to make her proud.”
Writing this was made easier by waiting to the end, the finishing hole as it were, to play the high-stakes shot. He who doesn’t struggle with the telling of a tale like this suffers, but that wasn’t why I waited. It didn’t seem right to build this entire story around tragedy. In the profession of which I’m still a somewhat fleeting member, there is a tendency to go the melodramatic route and milk it throughout, not that there aren’t times. In general, however, I tire of that method. This postscript plays a bit into that, I realize, but here you have it. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.