Jan. 9, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– As Bruce Heppler’s team cranks it back up and readies for the meatier part of the golf schedule, Georgia Tech’s head coach knows more about his squad than at the start of the school year, yet still searches for answers.
The No. 25-ranked Yellow Jackets were uneven in four fall events, although one could suggest that Tech showed more than a season earlier to spark optimism.
The way the high points were spread out, though, was discomfiting and irregular. Think of a football coach having a running back go for 150 yards in a one-sided loss only to be beaten out of his job soon thereafter. Or, a basketball coach with a player who racks up a double-double in one game and then goes 1-of-10 from the field with four turnovers in the next.
“The results were mixed … I think there’s a lot out there in the spring that we can achieve,” Heppler said. “We need to grow up, and everybody needs to grow up fast.”
With four freshmen, a sophomore, four juniors and two seniors, Tech’s 11-man squad is one of its biggest. There are reasons to believe that the Jackets can work their way back to being a favorite by the April 21-23 ACC Championship, where they won or shared eight of the previous 11 titles.
They’re scattered not only among fall results, but some outstanding practice rounds – like when freshman Andy Ogletree fired a course-record 64 at East Lake in September and even summer tournaments. The trick is putting pieces together.
• A tie for fifth at the season-opening Carpet Capital Classic at The Farm in Rocky Face, Ga., was Tech’s top finish in three stroke-play tournaments, and even that result was confounding.
• Freshman Luke Schniederjans won the tournament with an 11-under par score of 205. Alas, his scores didn’t count for Tech as he was playing as an individual after not making the travel team outright. An outstanding closing round of 13-under par 275 for the team could not wash away a second round of seven-over 295 on a course with which the Jackets are familiar.
• Tech was steadier in the Maui Jim Intercollegiate, finishing sixth with an eight-under score of 844 at the Mirabel Country Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., Sept. 23-25. The Jackets were 12-under after two rounds, but closed with a four-over 288. Junior Chris Petefish tied for ninth at six-under 207, and Schniederjans was a shot back in 13th. Ogletree came in at two-under 211 to tie for 18th, but like Luke two weeks earlier, he played as an individual after failing to make the travel team.
• In the third, the Golf Club of Georgia Classic played Oct. 21-23 in Alpharetta over their two practice courses, Tech tied finished 12th. The Jackets’ top scorer there, senior Vincent Whaley, tied for 12th, but his scores didn’t count for the Jackets as he was one of five Tech players to participate as individuals.
After considerable team and individual success at the Golf Club of Georgia over many years, the Jackets’ opening round of nine-over 297 and closing round of six-over 294 were disappointing to the point of alarm. Junior James Clark was Tech’s top counting scorer; he tied for 29th.
In three stroke-play events, Petefish’s tie for ninth at Maui Jim was the Jackets’ only counting top-10 finish.
Tech deployed new qualifying protocols for the team in the fall, beginning for the first time with round-robin match play in the summer and continuing with stroke play aggregation of both practice rounds and competitive rounds.
“Some people would say we didn’t always have our best five playing,” Heppler said. “We’re more talented than we were a year ago. The freshmen had to find their way. For the most part, I think we’re better than we played.”
The Jackets’ final fall event, a rare match-play event, showed that.
Tech soundly trounced No. 14 Georgia, 8.5-3.5, in the first match of the Cypress Point Classic at Pebble Beach, and then dominated No. 6 Stanford, 8-4, barely a week after the Cardinal finished 20 strokes ahead of the Jackets in Alpharetta. Tech finished the event with a lopsided loss to No. 15 USC in the finals.
College golf, like tennis, is different from many sports in that players come largely from an individual playing background. Blending into a team is more difficult some years than others, and establishing a pecking order is not a given.
Junior Jacob Joiner was one of Tech’s top golfers last year but traveled just once in the fall. A little more than a year ago, he said after former Jacket All-Americans Ollie Schniederjans and Anders Albertson graduated in 2015, “Where Ollie and Anders were there last year, coach [Heppler] has kind of stepped into that spot.”
The coach is still in that spot, and looking for more peer-to-peer accountability among his student-athletes.
“I still wish some guys would step up and help me lead. It’s a challenge to ask young people to do that,” Heppler said. “Some people don’t want it. You can’t talk them into wanting to be a leader.
“You just have spells in a program where you don’t have it. You explain what it looks like … There’s one guy who has stepped up to help some guys with their school work. It’s better than it was.”
Recruiting talent from the youth ranks is a lot easier for Heppler than recruiting potential peer-to-pear leaders.
“You have so little evaluation experience; high school golf doesn’t exist for the most part,” the coach explained. “The guidance counselor is not going to say anything bad. If there was a really good golf coach, you could call him and ask. It’s not just my problem.
“Every parent tells me their kid is the hardest worker. You try to watch the way they treat their mother, and that will tell you what kind of kid they are.”
With a few weeks to re-connect before the Amer Ari Invitational in Waikoloa, Hawai’i Feb. 2-4, Heppler’s hoping the Jackets can build on the fall’s high points, and grasp the difference between competing with each other and not competing against each other for travel spots.
“We had a great fall in the weight room, and had some skinny freshmen put some weight on,” he said. “You really do have to work together … We’re working toward that. With [Matt] Kuchar and [Bryce] Molder and those dudes, it didn’t matter who got the credit; you just want to go beat teams.
“It really helps if [leaders are] perceived as your best player. If it’s your best player, then guys gravitate toward that even more. We’ve moved forward, and we’re in a better place than last May.”