This is the easiest time of the year for Georgia Tech golfers when it comes to the stresses of their sport even though the No. 2/3-ranked Yellow Jackets are also doing their heaviest lifting, yet in a way it might be every bit as fretful a stretch of calendar as any other.
In their offseason, they go from twice-a-week workout sessions to mandatory weight lifting four very early mornings a week, and they do school work, but that’s not the stress deal.
It’s the waiting game.
They don’t play much golf these days, and head coach Bruce Heppler, in fact, usually recommends that his student-athletes don’t even touch clubs for a couple weeks.
But there may be golf-related fretting.
It’s been a little more than two weeks since the Jackets wrapped up a fall schedule in which they tied for first and won in two tournaments and then won both their match-play contests before closing out with a third-place finish in the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate Invitational.
That was a uniquely vexing finale for the reasons above stacked upon those below:
- That tournament was played over one of their two home courses.
- In the first round, they set a tournament record with an 18-under par 270 to lead by six.
- Then, they shot their only plus-par round of the fall, a 289, and Tech finished three strokes behind Southern California and two behind ACC rival Clemson – whom they had beaten twice earlier in the fall – to miss what would have been the first undefeated fall in program history.
- Perhaps worst of all, they have to wait three months for a chance to wash out their mouths. Tech’s next tournament will be Feb. 7-9.
The Jackets can be happy about the fact they led the field in birdies in all three stroke-play tournaments, including 67 to USC’s 63 at the Golf Club of Georgia. There’s more work, though.
“It would have been nice to go through undefeated in the fall, which we’ve never done before, but I would assume you finish ranked No. 5 in the fall … lots of positives,” Heppler said after the tournament. “We’ll start at 5:45 in the morning, and try to create some positive level of fitness and toughness.
“If you’re making birdies, I think it means you can play. The other stuff is maybe just focus or better decision-making. We made a lot of mistakes, and we were right there with some of the best teams in the country.”
Junior Luke Schniederjans posted a team-best 68.78 stroke average and finished the fall ranked 11th in the country.
This is the only time of the year college-age golfers might go months without competing, although some Jackets may play amateur tournaments over semester break, much like they do during the summer.
Not junior Luke Schniederjans, who tied Clemson’s Turk Pettit for second place at 10-under-par 206 at the GCOGC and led the Jackets in scoring over the fall with a 68.78 average.
“It’s definitely weird. I’m not playing over Christmas break. The next time I’ll play will be in February, so you want to finish [the fall] on a strong note, and keep the vibe in the offseason so sometimes you put a little too much pressure on yourself,” he said.
“My sophomore year, I played twice over Christmas. Good events, just too much golf. So, this year I’m just chilling with the family.”
The Tech golf family has a lot to be proud of after the fall, and yet they have work to do before the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawai’i in February.
Sophomore Noah Norton is third in scoring at 70.22, trailing Schniederjans (68.78) and junior Tyler Strafaci (69.89) and ahead of junior Andy Ogletree (70.75) and fifth-year senior James Clark (71.33).
Norton helped the Jackets get off to a flying start at the Golf Club of Georgia with a 65. Then, he didn’t count the next day when he shot 78 and Tech slipped.
Golf is a constant struggle to merge mental management and physical skills, and the Jackets lost track of themselves on that second day at the Golf Club.
“I hate to make excuses for them in public, but you watch the [PGA] Tour, and it’s hard to follow up a great round. The euphoria, you see it all the time,” Heppler said. “You stall a little bit, and the wind kicked up on the back, which made it more challenging, but it’s the same for everybody.
“But you’re, ‘Wow, it’s a tournament record,’ and you just get caught up in the wash of that and you don’t come out with the same whatever it is. Also, it’s what we call golf. We have to be more consistent.”
But the fall’s sour finish didn’t shelve the Jackets’ belief in themselves. They aim to repeat as ACC champions.
That will be tough, as Duke is ranked No. 3/2 and Clemson – whom the Jackets beat by 20 strokes at the season-opening Carpet Capital Collegiate in Rocky Face, Ga., and by 11 in the Maui Jim Intercollegiate in Scottsdale, Ariz., is ranked No. 9/11.
Schniederjans will have you know, though, that, “We’re really good, and we’re deep and we’ve got a chance to have a really good year. We’re much better at every aspect than last year.”
For now, it’s about lifting weights to build strength and durability for the spring, and hitting the books to raise grade-point averages, where the golf team is traditionally super strong.
“I want the offseason to be filled with hard work away from the course, just get bigger and stronger and just feel better about yourself walking around,” Heppler said.
Moving forward, the Jackets may need to feel better about their games.
The coach wonders if sometimes they get out of whack when something goes haywire, which tends to happen in golf, where there are so many fine lines to play.
“Obsession is beautiful if you can deal with it. It’s a real problem if you can’t. But if you’re not somewhat obsessed, then you’re never, ever going to be great,” Heppler said. “Be really, really hard on yourself when you’re practicing, but once you put the ball on the ground, that’s got to switch off, and you’ve got to now turn into your own cheerleader or whatever is OK.
“You can’t be disappointed hitting a wedge to 20 feet. OK, it’s 20 feet. Now, you might think you’re better than that, but right now, you’re not, so just go up and hit the putt. Sometimes, you get caught up in how good it should have been. We’ve talked about the try-too-hard stuff.”
The Yellow Jackets have plenty of time to assess themselves before heading to the Big Island in February.