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#TGW: Grinding Golfers

Oct. 16, 2015

THE FLATS – Having been tasked with looking into mirrors to assess and correct, Vincent Whaley, James Clark, Jacob Joiner, Chris Petefish and now Michael Pisciotta are about to look about to learn even more about themselves.

When Georgia Tech jumps into the United States Collegiate Championship at the Golf Club of Georgia Friday-Sunday in Alpharetta, the 19th-ranked Yellow Jackets will find quite a panoramic view through their range finders.

The 17-team field is stacked with highly-ranked squads from around the nation, including No. 1 Auburn, No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 4 Florida State, No. 5 Wake Forest, No. 7 Southern California, No. 8 Stanford, No. 9 Oklahoma, No. 13 Texas, No. 21 Clemson, No. 22 Virginia, No. 24 UCLA, and the defending national champions, No. 27 LSU.

For an inexperienced team still in search of itself after fluctuating through two events, the USCC will be a solid index for the Jackets to stack themselves up against.

Tech will run its third different lineup. Pisciotta, a sophomore, is making his 2015-’16 debut.

Head coach Bruce Heppler, who has never been one to schedule walkovers with the idea of boosting players’ egos, has outdone himself in building this tournament into the best of college golf’s fall season.

“The field is arguably one of the best that has ever been assembled, very stiff competition and a chance for our guys to see where they are in relation to others,” he said. “For me, it’s a very special place. We joined early on, and it’s a huge part in recruiting, and huge part in developing our players.

“This club is as important as anything that’s ever happened to us. I’ve always been very proud of it, and I want to show it off. I think it’s a great test.”

The Jackets have shown off this fall, but only intermittently.

They led the season-opening Carpet Capital Collegiate near Dalton through the first round, and Joiner went on to win it. Tech, however, slipped to third place after the second round, and finished fifth after firing a 15-over-par 303 on the final round – the ninth-best round of the day among 15 teams.

In the DICK’S Sporting Goods Collegiate Challenge Cup, the Jackets finished seventh, and again struggled in the final round.

Joiner was the greatest mystery.

The sophomore was three under after the front nine in his first round, started the back with a quadruple bogey, and finished the tournament tied for 55th among 60. His scores: 75-76-79.

As the Jackets search for a new pecking order after the graduation of four-time All-ACC players Ollie Schniederjans and Anders Albertson, their scuffle is akin to what the football team is going through at running back and wide receiver – except the golf team cannot point to injuries stacked on top of youth.

“With this lineup we have to find out. We started the year not knowing who it would be and the only way to find out is by playing,” Heppler said. “The only way to see what’s behind the painting is to tear away the paper. Jacob was three under, on the lead again, and I thought, ‘Wow; we got one guy figured out.’

“He took that [quad] on a par 3, and it was like you walked in and took Mike Tyson’s first punch, went to the canvas and never got up. We have inexperienced players, guys who are a little unsure of themselves. That was tough, but he’ll learn.”

Whaley, a junior who is one of the Jackets’ elder statesmen with fourth-year junior Michael Hines (who will join freshman Tyler Joiner to play as individuals), and Clark, a sophomore, have been the most consistent – each with a blip.

With scores of 75-75-80 and 71-71-67, Whaley’s scoring average of 73.0 leads the team. He’s finished tied for 45th and third.

Clark’s gone 75-72-73 and 71-69-81 to tie for 12th and 36th with a scoring average of 73.5.

“[Vince] had one bad round. He got to sit behind Ollie and Anders, and now he’s got to step up front,” Heppler explained. “There’s a tremendous amount of growth. It’s a question of when, not if it will happen.”

Heppler is not likely to hire a new assistant coach before semester’s end, and several of his former student-athletes are helping with the squad.

Roberto Castro, Bo Andrews and Seth Reeves are just a few Tech alums whom the Jackets bump into while practicing at the Golf Club of Georgia in Alpharetta. They and others offered encouragement a couple weeks ago at the golf program’s annual, record-setting fund raiser.

With the Jackets heading into a tournament that includes seven of the nation’s top 10 teams, 12 of the top 25 and 16 of the top 50, their head coach wants them to peer through the looking glass to see how other top teams do their thing.

Yet at the same time, Heppler is trying to convince players to take care of themselves first. It’s a tricky “process,” to use his word, and the golf coach sounds a bit like football head coach Paul Johnson. They’re preaching to players to keep it simple, and take care of their assignments without worrying about the big picture.

“The vacuum of leadership . . . there are no seniors. It’s a battle,” Heppler said. “Chris Petefish just needs to do what Chris Petefish does, and so do the others, and let me worry about the group.”


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