Feb. 7, 2005
ATLANTA – It would be difficult for a team to perform better without winning a tournament than Georgia Tech did in the fall. In fact, the Yellow Jackets can rightly be called the best team in the nation without a tournament win, given the team’s No. 2 ranking in the most recent Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index.
Heading into the spring season, which begins at the site of Tech’s last tournament win, the 2004 Taylor Made/Waikoloa Intercollegiate, head coach Bruce Heppler is far from unhappy with his team’s performance.
Since Tech’s last team event in the fall, Nicholas Thompson captured his first collegiate victory at the Western Refining Collegiate All-American Classic, and he was joined by teammates Mike Barbosa and Roberto Castro at the USGA’s winter camp for prospective invitees to the U.S. Walker Cup team.
Castro and Thompson are both listed among the nation’s top 10 players according to the Golfweek/Sagarin Index, while senior Chan Song is No. 23 and Barbosa is No. 44. With four players among the nation’s top 50, there is a sense that the spring season holds plenty of promise.
“The positive from [the fall] is that we had a chance to win every time,” says Heppler, now in his 10th year with the Yellow Jackets. “When you play that many good teams, you’ve really got too be good for three days to win. We just weren’t quite good enough over a three-day period. But the fact that we were in everything, and you look at the individual rankings and the scoring averages over the fall, it was one of the better falls we’ve ever had on an individual basis. But there’s been somebody who has played a little bit better during the course of each tournament.”
The Jackets tee off Wednesday at the Taylor Made/Waikoloa Intercollegiate, which Tech won by three shots over UCLA last year, its third triumph at the event. Chan Song earned his highest finish of the year with a 7-under-par 209, leading four Tech players among the top 20 finishers.
The 54-hole tournament is being played this year at the Waikoloa Village Golf Club, a 6,791-yard, par 72 layout. The field includes eight of the top 15 teams in the latest Golfweek/Sagarin ratings, including No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 8 UCLA, No. 10 Texas, No. 11 TCU, No. 12 Southern California, No. 14 Augusta State and No. 15 Arizona State.
Thompson, a senior from Coral Springs, Fla., who has earned All-America mention three times, won the Western Refining event against a field of 30 players who all achieved All-America status last year. He fired a 9-under-par score of 204 and won the tournament in a playoff. It was a strong ending to a fall season in which he recorded three top-10 finishes and one other top-20 in five events, and posted a scoring average of 70.93, best in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Ranked No. 8 in the nation, Thompson enters the spring with the fifth-best career stroke average ever for a Tech player (72.20), and would seem poised to win a team event at some point. Heppler hopes that victory can be a springboard for the entire team.
“It does something for him, and it does something for everyone else, too,” said Heppler. “It’s been a while since Troy (Matteson) was around and won a tournament. Nick has been close, and several times had the lead and played well and not won. He didn’t want to leave college without a win, and maybe it’ll help him not press to try and do that. It will build confidence for him, but it also does the same for other guys on the team who might beat him in a qualifier. He may instigate some winning from others.
“Nick goes out there every day and thinks it’s going to be his day. He has had some great putting days. But he has lots of putts for birdie. He would love to have made some more. His ball-striking is such that, when [he makes his putts], he can shoot some ridiculously low scores. He’s a hard guy to discourage.
“Nick, as much as Troy, Bryce and Matt, has control of where his ball is going. He has played the last two NCAA’s without a double-bogey. That’s 144 holes of championship golf. That means Nick has got a pretty good idea of where to start the ball and how to finish where he wants to finish.”
Tech’s top five players recorded 10 top-10 finishes between them in the fall, and 15 top-20 showings.
Besides Thompson, sophomore Roberto Castro also seems poised to capture a victory or carry Tech to one after earning ACC Rookie of the Year and honorable mention All-America honors last spring. The Alpharetta, Ga., resident finished in the top 20 in all four events he played in the fall, three of those in the top 10, and recorded a stroke average of 71.00. He has seven top-10s for his career and carries a 71.65 stroke average into the spring.
“He had a wonderful fall,” Heppler said of Castro, ranked No. 5. “To get a 4.0 student in an engineering program, make ACC Rookie of the Year and All-American, I don’t know how much more you could hope for. He did a good job of everything. He’s conscientious and takes care of his business, which is what you have to do to accomplish what he did.”
Chan Song, a senior from Orlando, Fla., who has been a real workhorse performer for Tech in his career, and Mike Barbosa, a junior from St. Petersburg, Fla., who came on strong last spring and has continued to play well through the fall, give the Yellow Jackets a strong lineup one-through-four.
Song, an honorable mention All-America last spring, has not missed a Tech event in the last two years, and has played in all but one (40 of 41) during his collegiate career. He took last summer off to caddy for his sisters, Aree and Naree, on their professional circuits, and came back re-energized. Song posted a 72.07 stroke average in the fall, finished in the top 20 four times and the top 10 twice, including a tie for eighth at the Jerry Pate National Collegiate and a tie for 10th at the Western Refining Collegiate.
“I thought it would be good for Chan (to not play much),” said Heppler. “He caddied for his sister, so he got the perspective, similar to one I’ve had of him with the decisions that he makes. Now, when you’re on the other side, you can see some course management things, or some attitude things, that you may have heard and not believed completely from the coaching staff. So he became a coach for the summer.
“So from him sitting out, having the itch again and knowing he’s got nine months to go, from an energy level, an interest level and a passion level, should be a positive for him. And being on the other side of the golf ball for a while, he could learn some things from that.
“He worked on some things in his golf swing from last spring, and you started to see it. He made only one double-bogey at the NCAA. He’s been more consistent from the ACC on, and that’s carried on. He’s put more balls in the fairway, more balls on the green, fewer balls out of play, and that’s helped the consistency in his scoring.”
Barbosa finished in the top 20 twice in the fall, with a tie for 10th at the Jerry Pate his best showing, counted for Tech in every round and posted a stroke average of 72.83. It continued a strong 2004 calendar year in which he posted four top-20 finishes for Tech in the spring, and won the Cardinal Amateur last summer.
“Mike came a long way last spring, and I still think he probably came the furthest,” Heppler said. “He’s just stacked success on top of success, where I think his confidence level has to be even higher. There’s more progress than anyone on this team. He missed the U.S. Open by a shot, plays well all spring long, good tournaments all summer long, and then finishes with a victory. He’s taken responsibility for his game. He doesn’t look outside anymore. He looks inside.”
Sophomore Kevin Larsen and junior Thomas Jordan, as they did last year, competed for the fifth spot on the team, and Larsen emerged late in the fall to grab the position going into the spring. A sophomore from Santa Barbara, Calif., Larsen tied for sixth in his first fall event at the Carpet Capital Collegiate, and went 1-0-2 at the Hooters Collegiate Match Play Championship.
Larsen struggled with swing changes throughout last spring, but showed flashes with a tie for 14th at the Taylor Made/Waikoloa Intercollegiate and 69 in the second round of the NCAA Championship. Jordan played in three events and posted a 74.44 stroke average, but counted for Tech in only five of nine rounds.
“Between the six guys that have played, we’re going to find five consistent guys,” said Heppler. “I don’t know who that’s going to be. Kevin can go from playing one event to being our best player. It’s that close. A year ago, as a freshman, when we teed it up in the second tournament of the spring, Kevin was playing No. 1. He’s very capable of winning tournaments.
“We may not be a team that has a guy who has won eight tournaments as an individual. But if you look at what everybody is capable of, this may be the first time you can say that our fifth guy can win an event. Whoever that is, those guys won a bunch of events as junior players. So the potential is there to have a great spring and a great post-season.”
Those top six players are so solid that Heppler’s three freshman recruits – Adam Cohan of Wayne, Pa., David Dragoo of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Taylor Hall of LaGrange, Ga. – have been unable to crack the lineup for a tournament yet. Cohan, an AJGA All-American, was ranked as high as No. 12 among juniors before coming to Tech, Dragoo as high as No. 47 and Hall as high as No. 87.
“You realize how hard the adjustment is,” said Heppler. “You have to learn about handling school and how to fit it all in. It’s a jump up in the classroom, the weight room and the golf course. The other six are so far ahead, they will teach them a thing or two. I like what they’ll do, and how hard they’ll work. I don’t know how they’ll do. The other (six returning) guys are way out in front, and they should be.
“The six will make it real hard on them. Whether we’re playing for two or three or four, the other guys are just ahead of them. But they can still learn a tremendous amount. They were recruited to see if one of them could come in and make a major impact, then that’d be great. If they didn’t, we weren’t going to put a lot of pressure on them to succeed this year. From a need standpoint, there’s no pressure on them. If one of them gets in there and starts playing, then we’re going to have a great team. If they can knock one of these experienced players out, then that will bode well for all of us.”
The Yellow Jackets have some new events on their schedule for the spring. Following the usual beginning at the Waikoloa Intercollegiate in Hawaii, the Puerto Rico Classic and the Southern Highlands Collegiate in Las Vegas, Tech will play in the Oregon Duck Invitational in Eugene, Ore., a tri-match with Brigham Young and Washington at the Bandon Dunes Resort, and the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate near Charleston, S.C., before the ACC Championship, which is Apr. 15-17 in New London, N.C.
The NCAA Championship is being played June 1-4 at the Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md., preceded by the NCAA regional events the weekend of May 19-21.