April 30, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
They won’t know until next week which NCAA regional they will play in, but already Georgia Tech’s golf team is in a better place than in either of the past two springs.
With five tournament wins dating back to the fall (six counting a match play victory two weeks ago), and titles to show for three straight outings (four, including the match play) – including the Yellow Jackets’ seventh ACC title in nine years – they have reasons to feel good about themselves.
Confidence matters plenty in this sport, and the argument can be made that there was less of it in each of the past two springs. Operating on the notion that success begets success, and noting that Tech is working with three seniors and two juniors, the prospect of remaining on a roll seems all the more possible.
The Jackets failed to advance past the regional level in 2012 for the only time in since 1997, and that came even after they had won their fourth consecutive ACC title weeks earlier.
Last spring, the Jackets struggled over the back nine on the final day of the ACCs to slip to fourth, and then had to fight like mad – with a rare postseason lineup change – a couple weeks later to advance through regionals. They did that with the pressure of knowing that Tech was the host school for the pending NCAA championships – whether the team made the regional cut or not.
Both were abundantly talented squads that found themselves battling the sport and mojo.
Now, not so much.
There almost certainly will be unforeseen hurdles to clear between now and the through NCAA championships (should the Jackets make it that far) at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., from May 23-28.
Heppler feels this team is better qualified to face just about anything.
“I’m hoping now that we’ve won these events . . . they’re crossing over to where no matter where we get shipped [regionals] or the fact that Prairie Dunes is going to be out of our element, it’s not a wishful, hoping . . . we’ve won before, and we can do that again,” the coach said. “I’m hoping that’s where we’re moving.”
Although Tech cruised to the ACC title in ’12, the Jackets found themselves a poor match for the Oklahoma regional and missed out on the NCAAs.
“We won [the ACC] tournament, but we were really a bunch of young guys [including then freshmen Anders Albertson and Ollie Schneiderjans],” Heppler said. “We get shipped off to Oklahoma [for an NCAA regional] . . . we’re completely out of our weather element, and there were really good teams there.
“Plus, you’ve got a home team [Oklahoma] that is not a high seed . . . but they’re at home now and a factor.”
Last year’s regional pressure came in different forms.
The Jackets had their ACC slippage to process, they were in a tough regional in Tallahassee, and they were aching all the more to make it through to the NCAAs because the championship was to be played in metro Atlanta on a course – Capital City Club’s Crabapple – that the Jackets enjoy immensely.
“We did not want to miss two years in a row; I think everybody was a bit edgy,” he coach said. “Anders’ only experience had been with missing [qualifying out of an NCAA regional]. Ollie’s only experience had been missing. Bo [Andrews] had missed one. It’s in your head.
“They love Crabapple. We didn’t have a guy in the group that had not played that golf course extremely well. We had three guys qualify for the [U.S.] Amateur there, and Bo shot a 61.”
Then junior Seth Reeves played his way back into the lineup and replaced freshman Michael Hines (who redshirted this year) in what had been the ACC lineup. Andrews’ third and final round at Tallahassee was critical in the Jackets making it through the regional, and moving onto Crabapple.
There, they advanced all the way to the national semifinals before falling in match play to eventual champion Alabama.
“I think last year at the finals, the location played a huge part in their confidence level,” Heppler said.
The two closest of six pending regionals will be in Auburn and Raleigh.
Auburn is not likely because No. 1 Alabama is likely to be placed there, and Tech is highly ranked enough (No. 2 by Golfweek, No. 5 by Golfstat) that the Jackets are likely to be a top seed in one of the regionals.
Heppler scheduled Tech into a tournament last fall in Chapel Hill, near Raleigh, to get a feel for the local weather and lay of the land. The Jackets won at UNC. Knowing another regional will be in Chicago, Heppler scheduled Tech into a tournament at Ohio State a few weeks ago. There, the Jackets won at Ohio State and dealt with the Bluegrass rough that will be prominent at Prairie Dunes.
Wind is also likely to be a factor in Kansas. With that in mind, the Jackets played tournaments in Hawai’i and Florida and encountered gale-force gusts at Ohio State.
Plus, one week after the fall season ended, the Jackets traveled to Prairie Dunes and played their way around, “Two rounds, and it was great; we got a north wind and a south wind,” Heppler said. “If we get there, and there is still stuff to do to get to go, there is only one practice round.
“Now, the practice round will be more about figuring out the speed of the greens, chipping and pitching because they already have an idea of where they’re going; They don’t have to spend that one day thinking about where they’re going to hit off the tees. That saves time to focus on other stuff. Hopefully, that will pay off.”
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