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#TGW: Aiming Higher

Chris Petefish has played five competitive rounds since the ACC Championship, attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open and the PGA Tour Canada.

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

– While de-briefing before departing Atlanta, the ACC champions from Georgia Tech clearly weren’t expect to play like rookies at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course, but rather like a veteran group with roadmaps to win the NCAA Raleigh Regional.

The No. 4-ranked Yellow Jackets have plenty of reasons to be confident. None of the five who will compete Monday-Wednesday have played there before, yet they know winning and that may mean more than local knowledge.

Confidence clears the head, and with four titles in 10 tournaments this year, they have expectations every time out.

“Last year we felt like we were good, but now we know,” said senior Chris Petefish, whose birdie on the last clinched the Jackets’ two-stroke win over Clemson in the ACC championship. “We had a solid team last year, but this year we’ve taken that extra step.”

Sophomore Andy Ogletree said, “We know that we’ve won tournaments just as strong as this field and maybe stronger. I just feel like that confidence makes this tournament just another tournament.”

It’s not quite that, as Tech must finish in the top five in a field of 14 teams to qualify for the NCAA Championships, May 25-30 at the Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla.

There are more reasons that Petefish, sophomores Tyler Strafaci, Ogletree and Luke Schniederjans and freshman Noah Norton feel so good. They’re the No. 1 seed.

After a three consecutive years of traveling far west for regionals, they’re not going far at all. Tech will play its third consecutive tournament in North Carolina, in fact, most recently winning the program’s 17th ACC title April 20-22 at Old North State Club in New London, N.C., where the Jackets have landed 11 of their conference titles.

Before that, they finished third in the Irish Creek Intercollegiate in Kannapolis even though Norton missed that tournament because of an injury.

“Oh yeah, for sure; we’ve got good feelings going back to North Carolina,” Strafaci reported. “It’s always helpful knowing the last time you played you won a tournament.”

Petefish said, “It can’t hurt. We’ve done a lot of great things in that state regardless of the golf course.”

Plus, the Jackets know a few things about Lonnie Poole as former Tech players, including several members of the squad that won the 2014 regional there by 17 strokes, have passed along intelligence reports.

“Some older guys have told us about it and gave us hints,” said Ogletree, who added that former Jacket Ollie Schniederjans has forwarded detailed notes about the course. “I’ve heard it’s a lot like Old North State. It’s a little bit longer, more open, bentgrass greens … it should set up well for us. Ball-striker central.”

All of that may be fine and dandy, yet head coach Bruce Heppler most values the fact that his squad has already experienced success this season. He sees that as a psychological bump that can be a valuable asset in postseason golf.

“It’s huge. We’ve talked before, once you win as a new group, it changes their mindset,” he explained. “We’ve done this before. You’re not trying to do this for the first time at allegedly the most important time of the year.

“The fact they won, they’ve won big events, they’ve been competitive in each and every one. Hopefully when they get out of the car Monday morning, that’s who they see themselves being.”

Adding to Tech’s confidence, Norton is healthy again after missing the Irish Creek tournament and struggling at the ACCs, where just one of his three rounds counted toward the team score. In Tech’s first eight events, he recorded four top-10 finishes to lead the team.

“The last event didn’t go so well for me, so looking forward to getting back and contribute to the team and get us another one. I feel a lot better,” he said. “I’m fully healthy, and ready to go. I think I’m better than where I was, too.”

The Jackets appear not to be concerned that they haven’t competed as a team in three weeks.

All five of them recently tried different U.S. Open qualifiers.

“Oh, it’s huge for me. At ACCs, I had a club in my bag, a driver, that just wasn’t fit really well, because my speed’s gone way up in the last couple months,” Strafaci said. “So, this U.S. Open qualifier gave me a chance to test the driver that I’m using now, and it’s really good.”

Additionally, Petefish went through a four-round qualifier for the Mackenzie Tour, the PGA Tour’s minor league circuit in Canada.

At the Crown Isle Resort in Courtney, B.C., he logged rounds of 74-69-70-68 May 1-4 to tie for 21st at seven-under par 281. That was good enough for conditional status on the Mackenzie Tour, where he anticipates landing several starts later this summer to launch his career in professional golf.

He took a red-eye flight back after the final round in order to walk in commencement ceremonies on May 5.

“I think it’s good for me, because I’ve always liked playing golf, getting rounds, being under the gun. I kind of feel like I’ve been able to fine-tune my game a lot over the last week-and-a-half. The game feels really good now. My set-up was a little off at ACCs.”

Petefish and his teammates will see familiar competitors in Raleigh.

In addition to No. 9 California, No. 16 Texas and No. 21 Arizona State, ACC foes Duke and NC State will play in their backyards. Duke senior Jake Shuman, in fact, won the Mackenzie Tour Q-School.

That’s OK. The Jackets feel like they’re heading home as the No. 1 seed.

“We’ve been in the last group all but one time all year, so they should be used to that,” Heppler said. “I still think out best golf could be ahead of us. I think we can play better than we have played and hopefully we can play better the last two.”

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