Sept. 8, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
You might say the method is madness, but when Bruce Heppler runs his players through a six-round qualifying tournament before the season begins and the process sifts out his only two returning starters – including senior All-American James White – Georgia Tech’s golf coach would describe the process differently.
Heppler, whose track record is impossible to riff with a straight face, wants to test his players under somewhat maddening conditions. Nobody is favored, or given preferential treatment. The goal is to get an idea who might best hold up.
It worked fine for freshmen Ollie Schniederjans and Anders Albertson and sophomores Seth Reeves, Bo Andrews and Drew Czuchry. They’ll represent the Yellow Jackets today through Sunday in Dalton at the Carpet Capital Collegiate (The Farm Golf Club, Rocky Face, Ga.).
Schniederjans, who like Albertson enrolled at Tech in January, had a solid summer in amateur tournaments, and entered school as one of the top five junior players in the nation so his success doesn’t qualify as a surprise.
“Coming to school [early] was huge,” he said. “It’s more important academically. The first half of your first year you’re completely new to everything. Last semester, the focus wasn’t on golf. It was on school. Now I’m comfortable with that … and I can focus on golf and school.”
Reeves and Andrews are redshirts and Czuchry transferred from Akron after home-schooling before that in Auburn, Ga. (story to come, methinks)
White, a two-time All-ACC golfer who was a high school teammate of Schniederjans for one year at Harrison, and sophomore Richard Werenski, who played in all but one event last school year for the Jackets, didn’t make the cut.
“The idea behind qualifying is to make sure that those who are going are playing well, and I think we accomplished that,” said Heppler, whose teams have won the past three ACC titles among several other impressive entries on his resume.
Maybe White’s absence shouldn’t be a shock. He hasn’t exactly been a late summer-early autumn player.
He started slowly last fall, registering his two worst finishes in Tech’s first two tournaments, and went onto wrap up the fall by winning the United States Collegiate Championship. He won again in the spring in Puerto Rico, and spent much of the school year as the Jackets’ top-ranked golfer.
Entering the summer, White was in the running to make the U.S. Walker Cup squad, and received an exemption into a Nationwide Tour event in July.
His play lagged of late, though, perhaps forecasting his work in Tech’ 99-hole qualifying tournament (one of the six rounds, four of which were played at East Lake, was cut in half by weather).
This is not the first time one of Heppler’s top returning players has struggled in the fall. Just a few years ago, returning second-team All-American Chesson Hadley didn’t make the travel squad for a few fall events and went onto become an ACC champion after that.
Heppler may institute coach’s picks later in the season, but leading into the Carpet Capital, it was every young man for himself.
“When he recruits you, he tells you that everybody is playing for five spots,” Schniederjans said (There won’t be time to play this kind of qualifier all season; this went on for more than a week). “But whatever coach chooses to do, it will be fair. He talks to us a ton. There are no secrets with him; he’ll tell you everything he’s thinking with regards to his decisions.
“All of the pressures come outside the golf course. When you get on the course, you just … play. In between rounds you’re thinking about it, and a lot of us feel like we should be playing and should qualify, so there’s pressure that way.”
Mixed feelings … the warm and fuzzy side of my brain wonders if White hasn’t earned the right to play poorly in a tournament as opposed to playing poorly in practice before being left out of the lineup. The cutthroat in me gets Heppler: whoever’s playing best now should represent Tech. Bet this process discourages Tech golfers from resting on laurels. I’ll try to catch up with White soon. Bet he has a back story that factors, huh? Thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.