Oct. 21, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– It’s not easy to host a college golf tournament like this weekend’s Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate, and many programs don’t even play a “home” event in their fall and spring seasons. When Georgia Tech does, the Yellow Jackets go big.
As the 11th annual version of the event — formerly known as the United States Collegiate Championship — unfolds in Alpharetta, a glimpse at the 17 programs walking the Lakeside and Creekside courses offers plenty of proof.
Fourteen programs are ranked in the top 50 nationally by Golfstat, including No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 3 Auburn, No. 6 LSU, No. 7 Virginia, No. 8 Oklahoma and No. 9 Wake Forest.
The No. 31 Jackets (No. 24 in Golfstat/Sagarin Index) will have their hands full Friday through Sunday as freshman Tyler Strafaci makes his college debut over one of Tech’s two home courses (East Lake Golf Club is the other).
Head coach Bruce Heppler wouldn’t have it any other way.
He’s never been one to shy away from competition so when he sends out invitations, he goes to the VIP section of his Rolodex for numbers in putting together what may be the top autumn competition in the nation.
“I feel a huge responsibility … I could write a book on how not to win your own tournament, but I’ve tried not to schedule that way,” he said. “Some people want to look good the one time they’re in town, but that’s not how we do it.
“It’s like a fall national tournament. I’ve had people tell me it’s one of the top three amateur events in the world (presumably aside the U.S. Amateur and NCAA Championships). Whoever wins it will have done something. It’s not set up to make [Tech] look good.”
Actually, the Jackets won the event in 2010 and 2012.
Winning this weekend would be special, as Strafaci will be joined by fellow freshman Luke Schniederjans and juniors James Clark, Michael Pisciotta and Chris Petefish. This is the first time in three fall events that Strafaci and Pisciotta made Tech’s travel team. The other three Jackets are playing for the third time.
They’ll be tested by the courses and the field. Twelve of the top 25 individuals in the Golfstat national rankings are at the Golf Club of Georgia, including last year’s co-medalists: Derek Bard of Virginia, Maverick McNealy of Stanford, Will Long of Auburn, and Cameron Young of Wake Forest.
Bard set a tournament record in winning this event at 15-under par 201 in 2014, and McNealy earlier this fall won this 11th college tournament to tie former Stanford golfers and current PGA Tour pros Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers for most in the history of a program that has won eight NCAA team titles.
Schniederjans won the Carpet Capital Collegiate in Tech’s first fall outing, competing as an individual, and he’s currently tied with Oregon State senior Connor Lumpula for the nation’s lowest scoring average (68.83), according to Golfstat.
He hasn’t seen a field like this, but looks at the weekend as if it’s nothing new.
Beyond the fact that the Jackets practice at Golf Club of Georgia, his brother Ollie — a PGA Tour pro who won the event in 2013 and now makes the course his base — will attend with the rest of the family. Earlier this week, the Schniederjans family hosted a Tech squad dinner at their home off No. 8 on the Lakeside.
Some might look at the Jackets’ familiarity as advantageous; others might consider it a reason to add pressure for sake of hiking expectations. Luke doesn’t much ponder possibilities.
“I think it is what you make it if you just try not to put too much pressure on it and treat it like another tournament but you’re not traveling. I think it’s an advantage,” he said. “There’s no time change. It feels at home. This is where I’ve played the last year and change.
“It’s awesome because we’ve got pretty got much the whole team playing . . . and excited. It feels like a huge team event.”
That’s quite something Schniederjans said. “Pretty much” the whole team is playing because a squad slot fell open when Florida State dropped out.
Rather than scramble to invite another team late, well after teams had set schedules, Heppler is sending out seniors Vincent Whaley and Michael Hines, junior Jacob Joiner, sophomore Tyler Joiner and freshman Andy Ogletree to compete as individuals in this tournament.
“We don’t get many head-to-heads; this is nine head-to-heads [for each Tech golfer],” the coach said. “It’s kind of nice for 10 kids to play in the tournament because, as you know, this can be a tough deal [when players don’t qualify to compete]. I think we’ve had 10 play before.”
These five won’t count toward Tech’s official team score, but their performances will count in the team’s qualifying process for the fall-ending gem of an event, Oct. 31-Nov. 1 in the Cypress Point Classic in Pebble Beach, Calif.
Heppler set up unique qualifying this fall because Tech will play so quickly again.
Qualifying points are accumulated through the combination of a rare intra-squad round-robin match play before the season, traditional intra-squad stroke play qualifying before the second and third events, and results from all tournaments played whether on the travel squad or as an individual.
“I try to go at least 10 or 12 days [between events] and we were headed to North Carolina when this opportunity presented itself [at Cypress Point, when another squad dropped out],” the coach said. “It creates a deal where you can’t qualify [traditionally between events]. We had to decide another way.”
Heppler hasn’t laid an easy path before the Jackets. That’s not his way.
The Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate is loaded year after year as the combination of high-end golf courses and a quality field convinces coaches of top programs from coast to coast to RSVP their invitations.
Several programs travel long distances. This field has three teams from California (No. 13 Stanford, No. 19 USC and No. 33 UCLA), two from Oklahoma, and three from Texas (No. 21 Texas A&M, No. 28 Texas and No. 68 TCU).
“It has a little bit of a national feel,” Heppler said. “It’s hard to travel east, but the fact that many of these teams continue to come says something. You always feel better when you play a place a lot, but some of these teams have played here quite a bit themselves. This is Maverick McNealy’s fourth trip.”