May 20, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Yellow Jackets have had a couple days to decompress, and they needed the time. Golf brings to bear many moments where gravity feels multiplied, yet Georgia Tech’s slog through the Tallahassee NCAA regional was especially heavy.
There were unique pressures ahead of time, and it turns out coach Bruce Heppler and his players talked about what he called, “the ghost in the room, the elephant,” back in the hotel the night before they broke out the sticks for real.
Tech wound up qualifying Saturday for the NCAA Tournament, which the school will host May 28-June 2 at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple course.
It will be the first time Tech has ever hosted the NCAAs (the program has hosted regionals before), which was part of the pressure pack.
Where normally there might not have been much thought that the Jackets wouldn’t qualify for the darned thing – they qualified for 20 of the previous 22 NCAA regionals in which they competed, after all – last week there was that, um, concern.
Tech had not qualified a year ago, as a matter of fact, and the Jackets have been quite uneven this spring. That was never more evident than in the ACC Tournament, where despite being within two shots at the turn on the final day, Tech fell with a series of thuds to fourth place.
Thus ended their four-year run as ACC royalty.
So there were some ominous backstories going into the Tallahassee region. Human nature suggests that the Jackets couldn’t help but wonder if all the above was cruel foreshadowing.
Heppler is generally not one to avoid conversations about gloomy topics; he believes that golfers must constantly address the pressures of their game, and even embrace them.
He considered breaking his tradition, however, and not bringing up all the heat.
But he just couldn’t pull it off. Words cannot detail how hard Heppler, Tech officials, Capital City officials and others have worked to bring the nationals to town.
Add the thought of Tech not making it for just the third time in a century, and, well, the steam popped out of Heppler’s chamber.
“I couldn’t decide. So finally I said, ‘Let’s just go ahead and talk about the ghost in the room,'” Heppler recalled saying to the fellas. “You all say you want to do this. Seth [Reeves], you want to be on the postseason roster . . . you can’t hide from this anymore.
“I didn’t know whether to say that or not, and I just did. It’s been the elephant in the room all year. Stay away from last year? Or just talk about it. I don’t know why I did.”
Heppler and his program have so rarely encountered failure on a scale with that NCAA regional flameout of last spring that even he – of all people – tried in a way to pretend that it didn’t happen, that it was an abherration born of cosmic mis-alignments.
The risk of last year scarring this year was so real, though, that Heppler couldn’t keep quiet.
When it was over, he said his golfers came off the course oozing, “Just relief. This program has great tradition. Missing [NCAAs] two years in a row, you don’t want to put your name on that.”
Before it began, wow. Times were tight.
Junior Bo Andrews, whose 68 on Saturday was large in helping the Jackets finish fourth in the regional to advance, welcomed the Wednesday evening chat in the hotel.
“It was back in the room after the practice round. In a nutshell, he told us that it’s time for us to grow up,” Andrews said. “We just all kind of looked around, and smiled. We all kind of liked it, got that tingly feeling inside. The situation . . . I really haven’t been a part of something like that.
“After [Saturday’s] round, we all talked about how that was the best speech coach has ever given, or possibly that we’ve ever heard.”
Heppler’s had versions of that conversation with previous teams and individuals, but likely never where so much was at stake nor where there was a greater unspoken pressure on all involved.
There will be less expectation for the Jackets next week when the nationals begin. Cal will be an overwhelming favorite, and despite its familiarity with the course Tech will be in the “field” after the Bears.
But not making it to the big time when you’re the host?
That would be brutal, maybe not quite parallel to Kentucky hoops failing to earn an NCAA Tournament berth the year after winning the national title and then losing its first NIT game at Robert Morris. That was a macro example to give an idea of the feelings at work here.
Heppler sewed together sound bytes that he’s used before, sprinkled plenty of passion in there, freshened up with a few topical examples, and took off rolling.
Golf, he said, “is dealing with the stress; guys start thinking.”
The Tech coach said he still has these conversations with his former players, guys like Bryce Molder and Matt Kuchar. Many times Heppler has marveled over the tendency of some golfers to believe that their stress levels will sink if they just play better, yet the reality can be that their stress levels prevent them from playing better.
His bottom line is unchanged: The stress of the game isn’t going anywhere. “If you don’t like it, you better go do something else,” coach said. “The better you play, the worse it gets. There’s more pressure when you win because then you’re expected to.”
The Jackets hung around the cut line for all three days, began to pull away on the back nine on the final day, slipped a smidge, and then closed with three birdies on the tournament’s final hole. They did not play their best golf of the year, although Heppler later said that given the circumstances it might have been Tech’s best round – ever.
Tech survived, and advanced.
Andrews will keep to himself most of what Heppler said back in the hotel. “A lot of our secrets we want to keep to ourselves,” he said with a chuckle.
Some of it, though, he let out.
“It was great,” Andrews said. “I think that everybody knew what happened [last year], and we just wanted to make sure everybody had a clear mind on what we had to do. It was time for us to grow up.
“Once you get to the national championship, anything can happen. I think because no one on this team had made it to a national championship yet . . . I’d say that was added pressure. I think that bodes very well for us next week.”
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