May 16, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
When the Yellow Jackets tee it up this morning in near Tucson, Ariz., they’ll be in for something quite different in the NCAA regionals. Really, only sophomore Chris Petefish will relate as Georgia Tech chases a spot in the NCAA championships.
Desert golf is not the same as that back east, and Petefish is the only Jacket with any real experience in it having prepped at the Scottsdale Christian Academy.
When played in the high desert, golf is more unique still.
So for a few days before competition, the Jackets noodled around out West with one of assistant coach Jeff Pierce’s gadgets – the Trackman — to re-engineer. They’re looking to dial in before taking on the 7,258-yard, par 72 Gallery Golf Club and a field of 13 other squads, seven ranked ahead of No. 48/41 Tech.
To grab one of the five spots out of the regional, the Jackets will have to play a different game. Their clubs won’t work the same as the air is thin, heat is high, humidity is low and the ball tends to go.
“It’s just unique because. . . the ball goes really far,” said Petefish. “That’s fun for people who haven’t been here . . . it told us all of our distances.”
Petefish said he’ll carry a card reminding him what he discovered over the previous few days – that all clubs carry further, “like 11, 12, 15 yards per club.”
Before the Jackets left Thursday, head coach Bruce Heppler said, “My experience has been that it’s real easy to get out there and the ball’s going to go forever and you just start whacking it.”
There will be more to Tech’s task than mastering distances.
Desert golf lacks obvious targets and sightlines can be skewed by a shortage of landmarks. Basically, there’s tee boxes, thin strips of fairways with smidgens of rough aside and a lot of cactus and scrub outside that.
After three days of practice, junior Vincent Whaley wasn’t one to disagree.
“It’s quite a bit different. There’s a really big premium on hitting the fairways,” he said. “You have to kind of hold off on the drives because if you miss, you’re basically hitting off the cart path.
“[Sunday] it was 95 degrees, and blowing 20. It didn’t feel too bad with the heat, though, and it was 102 the first day. It just feels better. It’s easier to breathe.”
The Jackets were sent west for a second straight season in search of a berth in the NCAA championships. Heppler wouldn’t mind a result like last spring, when Tech scrambled late to qualify out of the San Diego. This won’t be the same, though, other than more nice weather seems likely.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the Jackets are playing house money.
By their standards, they’ve struggled with the graduation of four-time All-ACC golfers Anders Albertson and Ollie Schniederjans and the loss of their short-game practice facility, which remains under renovation off 14th St.
There have been signs of invigoration. Tech tied for second in the Clemson Invitational, was third in the Princeton Invitational and fourth in the ACCs where they’d won six of the previous seven titles.
The yoke of expectations has loosened.
“You’re definitely on to something,” Whaley said. “I don’t think a lot of people expect us to make it to nationals. Everyone’s game is coming around, though, and school is a lot bigger deal for us than for a lot of teams. I think we’re in a really good spot.”
Tech will not be the only team in the field that has finished final exams.
Yet among a group that includes No. 1 Stanford, No. 12 Wake Forest, No. 13 Cal, No. 24 Oregon, No. 25 North Carolina, No. 36 North Florida and No. 37 UAB, the Jackets’ burden will surely be lighter than most relative to the regular season.
“This is a fun time of year because you only have to do one thing,” said the head coach. “Somebody’s buying your meals and hotel time, and all you have to do is practice golf.”
This kind of golf may be new, but the goal is the same.
“We were eight shots out with five holes to go a year ago and three of these guys were part of that and they made some birdies, too,” Heppler said. “We got through, and they’ve have a positive experience in this deal so you’ve got to kind of count on that.”