Feb. 19, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
At first thought, the timing couldn’t be better for Georgia Tech’s golf team boards a flight Thursday afternoon for Puerto Rico and the first tournament of the spring. Yet as the Yellow Jackets leave cold weather for warm, you might say they will be leaping into fire.
Head coach Bruce Heppler will deploy his youngest lineup of the season in the Puerto Rico Classic Sunday-Tuesday, as seniors Ollie Schniederjans and Anders Albertson will be joined by sophomore Vincent Whaley and freshmen Jacob Joiner and Michael Pisciotta. Freshman Chris Petefish will play as an individual.
This will be Pisciotta’s first tournament as a scoring player. It will be the fourth for Whaley and Joiner.
Their coach does not make a big deal. Heppler and assistant coach Brennan Webb take into consideration a player’s inexperience, but not to the point of making it an issue. Don’t look for special pep talks for the kiddies.
“No, then they may start thinking it’s a bigger deal than it is,” Heppler said. “Now, if they don’t know the course we might say, `Would you rather have me or coach Webb walk with you,’ but that’s about it.
“The art is to create a scenario where it is never too big a deal. Michael has played a lot of junior golf, and while this is the first time on the road for him, he should have it handled.”
Pisciotta counts as a surprise. He played just once last fall, as an individual, and finished last among 79 golfers at the United States Collegiate Classic after rounds of 77-75-86 for a 22-over par score of 238 at the Golf Club of Georgia.
His fall scoring average of 79.33 lagged his next closest teammate, Whaley, by 6.33 strokes.
Yet there he and Whaley go, off to represent the nation’s No. 6-ranked college golf team.
Heppler’s not fretting. This is the way it must be; Joiner, Whaley and Pisciotta won the available spots on the travel squad fair and square, via 72 holes of qualifying at East Lake and the Golf Club of Georgia. Schniederjans and Albertson were exempted; the other seven Tech golfers went round and round.
“We let the low three go, and [Pisciotta] beat Chris in a playoff,” the coach said. “Michael worked as hard as anybody over the holiday break. I think it’s an example of a guy who was not very good at the end of the first semester while making big adjustments.
“He’s growing up. He’s gotten off to a much better start in school and everything this semester.”
Where Pisciotta arrived on The Flats last fall from Alpharetta with a healthy pedigree as one of the nation’s top junior golfers, Whaley a year earlier made the same journey.
Like Pisciotta this weekend, Whaley did not debut as a scoring golfer until his second semester.
From McKinney, Texas, he came with a fine resume, and went 72-65-73-210 to tie for 30th among 120 in the 2014 Amer Ari Invitational in Hawai’i.
That was it for a freshman season where Whaley opted to compete and get on with his academics rather than redshirt. His graduation goals are no less important to him than golf.
Last fall, he was a counting member twice for the Jackets, and admits frustration has been part of his process. He feels as though he’s coming to grip it better.
“When you first get here and you’re playing with these guys, you feel like you’re the big underdog,” Whaley said. “These guys know these courses, and they’ve been playing for three or four years. I feel like everyone gets to the point where you realize that that competition makes you better, and you see how they play.
“These guys are All-Americans, and you see how they play. You learn. I haven’t played in consecutive tournaments yet, but I definitely know from talking to the older guys, when you get in that groove, it’s easier to focus.”
Good word, “focus.”
That’s what Heppler and Webb seek from Whaley.
Playing as an individual at the Carpet Capital Classic, he shot 73-69-74-216 to tie for 25th at even par. His story was similar at the DICK’S Challenge Cup (76-68-77-221) and the U.S.C.C. (78-73-69). Up, down, up, down.
“Vince has a lot of ability, and his good is pretty good, and his bad is bad. He’s got to even that out,” Heppler said. “We’ve talked to him. He’s got to get to the point where the only time when he plays good isn’t when he hits it great.
“He’s show the ability to play some really great golf. He just has to eliminate some of the really bad stuff.”
Joiner, from Leesburg, Ga., has been surprisingly consistent.
He scored three out of five times in the fall, and was better each time, tying for 53rd at the Carpet Capital, tying for 25th at the U.S.C.C, and tying for 17th as the Jackets won the Warrior Princeville Makai Invitational.
In addition to improving his finish every time, he improved round-to-round in every outing. His scoring went 78-74-72-224 at Carpet Capital; 74-72-71-217 at U.S.C.C; and 74-70-65-209 in Makai.
“I’m just really getting used to the course as the days go along, and getting used to college golf. Playing for a team, that’s new for me,” he said. “The more you play a course, the better your understanding of it and the better you will play.”
If the fall was an adjustment for Joiner, who was home schooled before coming to Tech and never played for a golf team previously other than junior Ryder Cup-style, the future looks bright.
“Definitely, I feel like that first semester was a huge help and a great deal of experience,” he said.
Pisciotta and Whaley have tapped their forebears for experience.
Pisciotta has hipped himself to Albertson, a three-time All-ACC selection with a variety of All America and academic honors. He won the 2013 ACC title.
“Following Anders around … never hurt,” the coach explained. “When Anders leaves to go to the golf course, or practice, you end up with a pretty good day of work. Some guys are smart enough to figure that out. He’s known Anders for five years. You are who you hang out with.”
“[The young players at first] might stand back in a little bit of awe, but I think they’re just trying to keep their own head above water,” Heppler said. “You hope they watch a really good player play and see how he does it.”
Whaley said that’s happening.
“I roomed with Bo last year, and he kept every pin sheet and every yardage book from all the tournaments he played,” he said. “As soon as he’d get back, we’d go over every course, every shot, and he wanted to share all of his experiences with me. That was huge.”