June 1, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
Golf being as much psychological as physical, Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler recently played pre-emptive shrink to his team.
With exams complete and his golfers unencumbered by academic ties, he took the Yellow Jackets to Ooltewah, Tenn., for a sneak peek. There before them lay the Honors Course, home to the NCAA Championships today (Tuesday) through Sunday. A monster, some have called it.
There were only a few things odd about the Jackets playing two practice rounds on the 7,395-yard layout, chiefly the timing. This was before regionals; Tech had not yet qualified for the NCAAs.
Presumptive? Depends on perspective. Heppler’s been known to plan ahead, and given that the Jackets a few days later went on to finish third in the Southeast regional to qualify for the NCAAs for the 24th time since 1985 maybe it was preparation for the predictable.
Bottom line: when Tech tees off this afternoon, junior John-Tyler Griffin believes the Jackets will be dead ready. Add the fact they appear to be playing their best golf of the year and Heppler’s 15th/17th-ranked squad may shoot its way into contention for the school’s first NCAA golf title.
Griffin took a break from brushing his teeth the other night to say of a track that also played host to the NCAAs in 1996: “We’d heard horror stories about the course. Coach wanted us to play. It’s very intimidating off the tee. There are a lot of long, narrow holes. It looks narrower than it is. It’s nice to play and see. It isn’t quite as bad as people make it out to be.”
Heppler was among NCAA golf coaches who helped re-design their championship a couple years ago. There will be 54 holes of stroke play Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (18 per day) to crown an individual champion and trim the field to eight teams.
Those eight, seeded by their finish in the medal format, will play single-elimination match play Friday, Saturday and Sunday to determine the national champion.
“I think it’s great,” Heppler said. “We had a format that no one really understood. We would play around for four days, and then it was `you won.’ No one really got any credit for being second or third or fourth or fifth.
“If you think about the basketball tournament, you’ve got the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight and the Final Four. [Now] we play for three days and cut to eight. Fans understand that and players understand that.”
Griffin leads the Jackets in most statistical categories, and played rather predictably – and well – for quite a while. But his game got a little loose in the middle of the spring.
He was Tech’s leading scorer in all four autumn competitions (although in one he competed individually), and was low man again in the Jackets’ second spring tournament. He didn’t finish atop Tech’s leaderboard for the next four competitions, however, and even as the Jackets won the ACC title in April he was high Jacket and the only one to finish above par.
School wore heavy.
“I struggled a little bit. I had an equipment change. I was just physically exhausted to tell you the truth,” he said. “I was just worn out . . . you’re just kind of struggling to be really focused with papers and deadlines and so forth.”
Fortunately, senior Chesson Hadley found his sweet spot at roughly the same time. He took medalist honors at the ACC Championship as Tech finished 13 shots clear of Virginia. James White joined Hadley and Griffin on the All-ACC squad.
At the Southeast Regional at the Crabapple Course in Alpharetta, Griffin was back on course, tying for third place overall with a 1-under par 209 to pace Tech. Paul Haley tied for fourth and Hadley for eighth. In the final round, four Jackets – Griffin, Hadley, Paul Haley and Kyle Scott – all fired 68s, the first time in school history that happened.
“After we won the ACC, we all believed in ourselves more,” Hadley said. “Even though our first two rounds at Crabapple weren’t that great, we still believed in ourselves and went out and shot a great round the final day and almost won. Everyone’s playing really well right now.”
Perhaps there’s something to be said for familiarity.
Griffin said, “We’re probably as relaxed and confident as we’ve been all year. I think we’re all mentally and physically in a good place. It’s not like we had to get on a plane and go cross country.”