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Match This

June 2, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

The final day of stroke play in the NCAA golf championship was far from what coach Bruce Heppler had in mind.

Yet with his format in play, a new day dawns . . . today. Good thing the Georgia Tech coach got exactly what he had in mind a few years ago when he spearheaded change in the way the NCAA goes about its golf business.

Tech led the NCAA Tournament after days one and two of stroke play, but roughly one third of the field scored better than the Yellow Jackets (a 14-over par 302 after rounds of 283 and 290 Tuesday and Wednesday) were on Thursday at Oklahoma State’s brutal Karsten Creek Course.

Tech landed in second place, three strokes behind UCLA after leading by one at the start of the day.

Much of that is in the grand scheme irrelevant. Team match play – which will decide the national title — begins today, and the Jackets are one of the last eight teams standing by virtue of being one of the top eight teams after stroke play.

“We kind of got on the other side of the eight ball, and it was tough, but we get to play [today] and that’s what we came here to do,” said the Tech coach. “It was disappointing. We didn’t do well.”

Thursday’s greater real disappointment came in junior James White misfiring with a chance to win NCAA individual honors. He led after day one, was a stroke back after day two, but fired a 76 Thursday and finished in tie for eighth place. More on that later. Now, back to more critical matters.

Discounting football, where the NCAA does not hold a Division I postseason tournament (ever hear of the BCS?), Tech has won just one NCAA team title – in women’s tennis in 2007.

Four times Tech has been national runner-up in golf, three times under Heppler, and at least three times under odd circumstances. Were the old format of six days of stroke play still en vogue, Tech would be the national runner-up again at the end of stroke play.

But three years ago Heppler came up with the idea of playing three days of stroke play in the NCAA tournament, taking the top eight teams from there, and going team match play from that point onward. He wrote up a new format, it was voted on and approved, and here we are.

Today, Tech is the No. 2 seed at the finish of stroke play, and today shortly after noon will play No. 7 Augusta State in match play. Five golfers for each team, seeded against one another by virtue of national player rankings (Tech’s highest-ranked player vs. ASU’s highest-ranked player and so on). First team to win three matches advances.

That brings up a very interesting reality. It’s called a rematch. Tech was seeded No. 3 in match play and lost 3-2 on the first day of match play to Augusta State. That would have been an upset except that Augusta State won the whole thing.

Guess what’s on the Jackets’ minds today? Not the same thing as last night. There has been time enough to get over the misery of Thursday.

“James is disappointed because he had a chance to win the NCAA tournament, but that’s over with now,” Heppler said. “They know they’re getting to play, they’re getting to play Augusta State in a rematch. It’s all good.”

Following Wednesday’s second round, in which White shot a 73 after firing a 67 a day earlier, he said he struggled down the stretch and wondered if fatigue was an issue. Karsten Creek, which is 7,400 yards-plus, and tricked up to look like a visual monster, can wear out a linkster.

Add 25 mph headwinds like those Thursday and it’s no wonder overall scores rolled way, way back.

White, though, said he wasn’t tired. The guy just lost his putting stroke.

“I wasn’t tight on the golf course. It just was hard,” he said. “I made a few putts, and then I missed a lot of them. I drove better than [Wednesday]. I didn’t lose any balls.”

Tech’s second-leading scorer after the first two rounds, senior Paul Haley, scuffled as well. He shot 77 to fall from 11th to 20th. Freshman Richie Werenski, whose 73 counted for the team score Wednesday, scored 82.

If the Jackets sufficiently cleared their minds Thursday night, the good news is they have the talent to win it all – the same as last year.

They didn’t do well under pressure Thursday. Perhaps that will steel them better for what is to come. The wind is supposed to whip across the plain again today.

“Adversity; I’ll say [Thursday’s dose] will be good for them,” Heppler said. “You look at the PGA, and those guys that have the lead after three rounds, it’s tough. Very rarely do they win, and our guys were feeling the same way.

“They were uncomfortable, and that’s good. It’s going to be uncomfortable as we keep playing.”

Let’s hope.

White said, “We’ve learned the conditions out here. We didn’t play well, and that’s not a positive, but at least we know we’re still playing. We’re excited.”

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