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#STINGDAILY: Under Pressure

May 18, 2013

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

When you look at the numbers, Georgia Tech’s work in the NCAA regional in Tallahassee was nowhere near the best we’ve seen from the Yellow Jackets in their golfing history. Not even top 10.

Sometimes, golf is more than digits. Take these regionals; all a team has to do is finish top five to advance to the NCAA championships, and Tech did so by finishing fourth.

North Florida won this at 830. The Jackets were at 849. Oklahoma beat South Florida in a playoff for the final spot after they tied at 854. Nobody cares about numbers so long as you’re top five; it’s a qualifier.

For Tech, that was major work because there was an anvil on everyone’s head.

This was kind of like being an NBA team with LeBron-Wade-Bosh that is expected to do it all. Gut out the run-up, and you’re ready to leap for the brass ring.

Then again, there is that pressure – especially knowing that you are hosting the NCAA Tournament at Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course May 28-June 2.

How, you might ask, does this happen in college golf? Because this is mental game.

Here’s coach Bruch Heppler, whose pressure-release valve may be burned and melted:

“Under the circumstances, this might be the best round we’ve ever played. We’re playing with house money now. It couldn’t be any worse than it was here . . . this was brutal.

“We were under the gun for not one, but all three days. The best thing for them was to be under duress for three days.”

So here are the back stories that explain that pressure, in hyper-condensed mode:

The NCAAs will be at the Capital City Club Crabapple course May 28-June 2 up in Milton. Imagine having made it to the NCAAs in 22 of the previous 24 years, but not making it the first time that Tech has ever hosted it!

That was just one of the anvils over the Jackets. The last time they didn’t make it was, imagine this, just last year. Tech collapsed, no way around that word, late to miss out. Talk about a streak nobody wants.

And on top of that stick in the collective craw, consider the fact that the Jackets were four-time defending ACC champions when in last month’s ACC tournament they were within two strokes of the lead at the turn on the final day, and . . . they slipped to fourth.

No wonder, then, that after Bo Andrews fired a 68 and he, Anders Albertson and Ollie Schniederjans each birdied No. 18 Saturday, they all walked off the course with an expression of, “Just relief,” Heppler said. “This program has great tradition. Missing [NCAAs] two years in a row, you don’t want to put your name on that.”

Beyond Albertson and Schniederjans, Tech’s roster has been churning all spring. It’s not about a lack of talent; it’s been about a lack of comfort. Most of these guys have been edgy for a while, and some do better with that than others. Before every tournament they have to play for their spot in the regular season.

Andrews was the man Saturday, when his four-under par 68 paced the Jackets. He’s not far removed from being sent away from the team – for his good and that of the Jackets.

For a gentleman’s game, golf can be savage.

When Andrews didn’t earn his way onto the travel team for the Linger Longer Invitational in Greensboro in late March, Heppler suggested that rather than play in the tournament as an individual – meaning his scores would not count for the team – Andrews should play an amateur event.

So he headed to Charleston.

“I thought he needed to get away . . . I just thought the pressure of the team was growing on him,” Heppler said. “He went down there and had two really good rounds. Sometimes, the team thing becomes . . . if you’re not in the top five, it’s nasty if you’re the sixth guy. Hopefully, that made a difference.”

Hard to argue.

Next time out, Andrews tied for medalist honors in the Gary Koch Invitational. He was so-so in the ACCs, where he finished in the middle of the pack, but his 71-71-68 in the NCAA regional was a big part of Tech advancing.

The Jackets stretched Heppler’s heart Saturday.

They entered the day tied for fifth place with South Florida, two shots back of Oregon, but more importantly just one stroke ahead of Oklahoma’s Sooners (who had much to do with whacking the Jackets a year earlier).

So it looked like a four-way scrum for two spots to start.

At one point while they were on the front nine Saturday, the Jackets were in seventh.

Upon the back nine, Tech began striping.

After a while, they were seven-under-par on the back and entrenched in fourth place.

Then, they blew tires.

In a matter of minutes, Shun Yat Hak triple-bogeyed No. 18 – a par 5 which played second easiest Saturday (4.76)  –  Schniederjans doubled No. 16 and right behind him Albertson doubled No. 16 as well.

Tech gave back all seven shots to par in a blink. It looked like the pressure was back.

“I’d definitely say you’re feeling more pressure,” Andrews said. “We want to play in the national championship when we’re hosting it. We were feeling the heat.”

There’s this weird dynamic in college golf that is unlike what players feel at the junior level, or what they’ll experience at the professional level if they go that route. You worry not just about yourself, but letting down others.

“I just tried to do my thing and I knew that my teammates were going to do what they needed to do,” Andrews said. “At times, especially on the back nine, I was thinking, ‘What if?’ ‘What could happen?’, but I didn’t look at any scoreboards.”

Here’s what happened:

Andrews, Schniederjans and Albertson all birdied No. 18.

Turned out that they didn’t need quite that much margin, as the Jackets finished the tournament five clear of Oklahoma and South Florida, but that’s a great example of how players shouldn’t watch the scoreboard.

South Florida collapsed for the better part of Saturday’s round before a miraculous rally to force a playoff with Oklahoma for the last spot into the NCAAs. The Bulls got two birdies and an eagle out of their scoring players on No. 18 to force that playoff.

Which . . . they lost.

At the same time, Oregon State shot the best round (10-under par 278) Saturday for a ferocious rally, but among the Beavers’ four scoring golfers they got three pars and a single, deadly, bogey on No. 18 (to remind, the second-easiest hole of the day) to miss the playoff by one stroke.

And by the way, Oregon shot +6 to fall from the NCAAs to eighth place in the regional.

(I have to wonder here if Oregon State is, like Oregon, a Nike program).

So if you play this game thinking a wank hole here or there is not going to hurt, you may be burning house money.

The Jackets are going to play in their house next week.

They like that thought.

Crabapple is not one of the Jackets’ regular practice courses, but they play there enough.

The overwhelming, Kentucky basketball-esque (circa 2012) No. 1 seed going into the tournament is going to be Cal, which rolled to a regional win Saturday by 20 strokes.

Yet in the PING/Golfweek Preview last fall at Crabapple, Tech tied the Bears for the team title.

Seth Reeves tied for second in that tournament. He likes the place.

And Andrews shot a 61 – seriously – at Crabapple last week. He likes it, too.

So . . .

“I think because no one on this team had made it to a national championship yet, and the excitement of being able to get to the championship . . . I’d say that’s added pressure,” Andrews said “I think that bodes very well for us next week. We’re definitely going to welcome it because we love that course.”

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