Sept. 13, 2006
ATLANTA – When Georgia Tech’s golf team opens its fall golf season at the Carpet Capital Collegiate this weekend, the Yellow Jackets will not only be trying to purge the memory of a disappointing performance at the NCAA Championship last spring but build on a year that was very successful in almost every other respect.
Three tournament victories last season, including the Yellow Jackets’ first Atlantic Coast Conference title in four years, carry far greater weight in the minds of Tech’s players than the team’s missed cut at Sunriver Resort.
With the primary nucleus of that success returning, head coach Bruce Heppler and the Yellow Jackets hope to add a few more wins to that ledger in 2006-07.
The campaign begins Friday when Tech hosts the 18th Carpet Capital Collegiate, at The Farm Golf Club, a 6,906-yard, par-72 course in Rocky Face, Ga. The tournament field includes four of the top 10 teams in Golfweek magazine’s preseason rankings, including No. 2 Georgia, No.4 Clemson, Tech and No. 9 Wake Forest, and 12 of the top 30, including No. 12 Duke, No. 14 Florida, No. 16 and defending champion Georgia State, No. 17 East Tennessee State, No. 23 Texas Tech, No. 28 NC state, No. 29 Auburn and No. 30 Alabama.
The teams play 18 holes each Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and results each day can be followed at Golfstat.com. Tech has won this event six times, most recently in 2001, and finished fourth last fall.
All-Americans Roberto Castro and Kevin Larsen, back to anchor the team as seniors, and sophomore Cameron Tringale, who put together the best freshman campaign since Bryce Molder and Matt Kuchar were on the Flats, combined last year to earn 20 top-20 finishes, 13 of those in the top 10.
They lifted the Jackets to six other top-five finishes during the year, which ended with a No. 4 ranking in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index and ranks as one of Tech’s better years under Heppler. Entering this fall, the Yellow Jackets rank No. 8 nationally in Golfweek’s preseason projections.
Tech’s pre-season qualifying tournament showed that those three players remain the core element of this year’s team. Castro won the 72-hole event at the Golf Club of Georgia with a 17-under-par score, while Tringale (-11), Larsen (-6), sophomore Adam Cohan (-4) and sophomore Taylor Hall (-1) all earned spots to play in Tech’s fall opener.
For his part, Castro spent the summer trying to correct a wayward driver which knocked him out of contention at the NCAA Championship. By advancing to the round of 16 at the United States Amateur and winning Tech’s pre-season qualifying tournament by six strokes, the senior from Alpharetta, Ga., demonstrated that he has overcome those problems.
“The number at the top of the (qualifying) list is really critical for us, and has been for three years,” Heppler said of Castro. “He’s worked very hard this summer and tried to return to where he was. Based on his U.S. Amateur performance and the four rounds I saw out there, he appears as confident as ever and is hitting shots as good as he’s ever hit. That bodes well for our year.”
A first-team All-American as a sophomore when he finished third at the NCAA Championship in Towson, Md., Castro enters his final year with one of the five best career stroke averages in Tech history (71.93) and 14 top-10 finishes.
Larsen followed up two years of struggle with his best collegiate season last year. The Santa Barbara, Calif., native finished in the top 10 of all four fall events in which he played, then finished the year with top-15 finishes in the ACC Championship and NCAA Central Regional.
“I think Kevin will have his best year,” Heppler said. “He’s through the majority of his school work, and you can see the confidence building. He was one of America’s best junior players, struggled here for two years, but found his way last year. You can see how he feels about everything, and I think he will play better than he’s ever played in college.”
At the end, Larsen posted the team’s second-best stroke average at 72.36, was named a third-team All-American and ranked 19th in the Golfweek/Sagarin ratings. He enters the fall as a third-team pre-season All-America choice by Golfweek.
Heppler will look for Tringale to build on a rookie season in which he won twice, the UH-Hilo Intercollegiate and the ACC Championship, and finished in the top 10 five times in eight spring events. The sophomore from Laguna Niguel, Calif., made the cut as an individual at the NCAA Championship, tying for eighth place at 3-under-par 285, and posted the team’s low stroke average for the year at 72.19. He earned second-team All-America honors and ranked No. 19 in the Golfweek/Sagarin ratings. This fall, he is one of Golfweek’s top 10 players to watch.
Pushing for opportunities to play at the other two positions are a trio of sophomores in Taylor Hall, Adam Cohan and David Dragoo. Hall, who made the travel team for Tech’s first fall event, earned trips to nine of Tech’s 12 tournaments last year, posting a 74.44 stroke average and a pair of top-10 finishes. The LaGrange, Ga., native tied for fourth to help Tech win the fall Jerry Pate National Collegiate and tied for ninth at the ACC Championship.
Cohan, from Wayne, Pa., and Dragoo, from Scottsdale, Ariz., combined to play in five events, three as part of the travel team, with mixed results. Cohan had some success in the summer, tying for fourth at the Pennsylvania State Amateur, and finished fifth in the team’s pre-season qualifying tournament at 4-under-par for 72 holes.
“Taylor was the one who cracked the lineup last year, and you have to hope that his experience pulled him ahead,” Heppler said. “Adam did some nice things this summer, and we hope he can capture the form of the guy we recruited. They’ve all come along, but Taylor has the most experience. David has begun working out a couple times a day this summer and taken his fitness to a new level. He’s in great shape.”
Tech’s depth doesn’t end there, however, as Heppler began building for the post-Castro era by recruiting four freshmen for this year’s team. The class includes a trio of top-100 junior stars in Chesson Hadley of Raleigh, N.C., John Tyler Griffin of Wilson, N.C., and Paul Haley of Dallas, Texas, as well as Daniel Bowden of Easley, S.C.
Hadley, who entered Tech as the nation’s No. 22-ranked junior, was a second-team junior All-American in 2005 and a first-team prep All-American in 2006, winning a pair of independent 3A state titles in North Carolina while at North Raleigh Christian Academy. Griffin was a four-time all-state performer at Fike High School, ranked as high as No. 41 in the Junior Golf Scoreboard. Those two came the closest to earning a travel spot in pre-season qualifying, finishing even-par and 2-over, respectively.
Haley, a first-team Rolex Junior All-American in 2004, played on four straight Texas state high school championship teams as Highland Park High School, and this summer won the Texas State Amateur championship. Bowden won four junior tournaments and was a South Carolina state prep champion in 2004.
“(Griffin, Hadley and Bowden) are big, strong guys who can hit the golf ball a long way, which can make for some mistakes,” said Heppler. “(Haley) doesn’t hit it as far, but he hits it really straight. They all have very good fundamentals, and they have a chance to improve and grow into their games. They just need to maximize everything they do.”
The Carpet Capital Collegiate kicks off a four-event schedule this fall for the Yellow Jackets, which continues next week at the Olympia Fields Collegiate at Olympia Fields, Ill, a former U.S. Open venue, then the Ping/Golfweek Preview Invitational in Williamsburg, Va., Oct. 2-4 and the Isleworth-UCF Collegiate Invitational Oct. 22-24 in Windermere, Fla.
In the spring, Tech looks forward to hosting its second United States Collegiate Championship at the Golf Club of Georgia Apr. 9-11, and the NCAA East Regional comes to the Yellow Jackets’ home course May 17-19.
“Roberto’s playing well again, and you have the development of Cameron and Kevin,” said Heppler. “If those three guys can push each other all year long, then I think we can have a very good year.”