May 26, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
Bruce Heppler has been waiting a while for Georgia Tech to be the host school for an NCAA golf championship, and now that the week is at hand, he is quite happy yet uneasy at the same time.
The Tech coach has a team in the hunt, and so he’ll be dialed in on the Yellow Jackets during today’s practice round at Capital City Club’s Crabapple course in Milton, and as the tournament begins Tuesday.
Tech bid on the NCAAs twice previously on Heppler’s watch, with the Golf Club of Georgia as what would have been the site.
The third time proved a charm. It’s a career highlight even before play begins.
“After 25 years [as a coach], to get to host a national championship is pretty special,” the coach said. “I’ve been [at Tech] 18 years. Probably after six or seven years, we got the program where we needed it to be and I started thinking it would be great to do that.
“Part of it is a give-back from me to the profession so that the kids who come this year will have a great experience. I just wanted to be able to say that I did one.”
As the nationals have drawn closer, Heppler’s role has been reduced. The Capital City Club’s Bob Covington has been in charge of setting up the course, and several Tech officials – notably facilities manager Cheryl Watts – have handled the bulk of administrative duties.
“I just have a tremendous amount of trust in our department and what they’re going to do,” Heppler said.
Thirteen of the 15 teams that played at Crabapple in last fall’s PING/Golfweek Preview are among the 30 teams in the national field. They’ll find something of a different course than they played back in September, when No. 8 Tech tied No. 1 Cal for the title (the Bears could not stick around for a playoff; they had a flight to catch).
This time of year, the Bermuda rough is not yet as thick as it was then. There will still be an awful lot of it, however. Crabapple is wide, although the fairways are not necessarily that way.
The course will play a shade under 7,400 yards, and Nos. 9 and 16 will play as par 4s rather than par 5s. Bunkers will be deep, and there are several. There is no water, but – a reminder – there will be a lot of rough, and a few obstacles as well.
And the bentgrass greens figure to be fast given how dry it has been in recent days.
“It’s definitely a big advantage for those teams [that played at Crabapple in the fall], but especially for us because we play here all the time,” said sophomore Ollie Schniederjans. “It’s not just knowing the course, but always practicing on this type of grass and in this weather.”
Having survived the Tallahassee regional a couple weeks ago, the Jackets will chase their first national title in golf. They’ve been close on several occasions. After three days of stroke play, the field will be narrowed to the top eight teams. Then, three days of match play will decide the champion.
“That’s the most pressure I’ve felt since I’ve been here by a mile,” Schniederjans said of the regional. “It was a huge deal whether we made it or not . . . I feel like we’re freed up, and we know how good we are on that course.”
Tech (109-33-6) won’t have the pressure of being expected to win. Cal, which has won or tied for the title in 11 of 13 events the Bears have played while putting together a record of 173-3-1, and No. 2 Alabama (128-13-2) have earned that joy.
The Jackets like their chances.
“We’ve got good length on our team. I think as the humidity goes down, and the temperature goes down, the greens are going to be really fast,” Heppler said. “We’ve always felt that one of the advantages of coming to Georgia Tech is where you get to play all the time.
“You play East Lake, Golf Club of Georgia, the [Atlanta] Athletic Club, and those courses are hard, and the greens are firm and fast. We get to play PGA Tour-quality facilities often, and that will benefit us this week.”