March 10, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
The Yellow Jackets are making the rounds today at the Southwood Golf Club in Tallahassee, Fla., where the Seminole Intercollegiate will wrap up Sunday. As the highest-ranked team in the field, it’s fair to dream about No. 25 Tech winning for the first time since the 2014-15 season, and not just for sake of the fact that the Jackets are competing against No. 30 Florida State, No. 31 Penn State and 11 other squads.
Sure, the Seminoles will be playing a home-course advantage, but the Jackets have their pace car back.
Reasonably expected to compete for the Jackets’ pole position all season after last year racking up a win, three top-five finishes and four top-10s, Whaley‘s barely been able to get out of the pits after entering the fall with sparks flying while throwing pistons and cylinders left and right. He was out of whack.
Competing for the team score in just one of Tech’s first six tournaments, dating back to the fall, he’s logged just one counting round in 18 possibilities for the Jackets.
So, after Christmas break, he went into the garage for an overhaul. “It’s been a pretty tough year,” he explained. “It took us a while to get to where we want to be.”
Whaley’s usage of the plural fits both his re-build team, which has included working extensively with a private instructor at Country Club of the South, plus Tech head coach Bruce Heppler, assistants Drew McGee and Jeff Pierce and teammates.
Heppler opened one travel spot for this event, and Whaley earned it in qualifying. He’s joining freshmen Luke Schniederjans, Alex Ogletree and Tyler Strafaci, and junior James Clark to try and make the Ramblin’ Wreck hum again. Joiner will compete as an individual.
“We kind of always knew what my main problem was, but it takes a lot of trial and error,” Whaley said of his re-build. “It took a while to get my trigger. [The new mechanics] are not quite second nature, but it feels very good and I’m aware of it.
“I was talking to some of the freshmen, and they’re ridiculously talented. I trust these guys, and I hope they trust me and my game. I think we can win tournaments.”
That would be a good thing.
The ACCs are moving this spring; they will be April 21-23 at the Musgrove Mill Golf Club in Clinton, S.C. After this Seminole, Tech will play just two more events before going into the conference tournament, where the Jackets always seek to excel. The program has won or tied for 16 ACC titles, 11 under Heppler (including eight of the past 11).
“You really don’t want to try to have the ACC be the first tournament you win all year,” Heppler said. “When you bring a whole bunch of new guys together, there’s some wonder involved. If you can win a tournament earlier in the year, you think, ‘This is what we’re supposed do.’
“It’s like the basketball team after the first time they closed one out [beating North Carolina in the ACC opener]. It’s the same thing for us. If this group could win a tournament, I think they may take off.”
Last season was so-so against the standards by golf teams based on The Flats over the previous 20 or so years, yet with every student-athlete returning, a strong freshman class and the team’s practice facility coming fully online, Heppler and the Yellow Jackets had reasons to be optimistic. There has been some good news.
Schniederjans won two tournaments, Ogletree’s had moments and is coming off of a tie for 12th in Puerto Rico, and Strafaci is a little more than a month removed from a 13th-place tie in Hawaii. Clark’s made every travel team this season, his best finish coming T-11 at the season-opening Carpet Capital Collegiate.
It’s been a weird season, however, for the Jackets, who at times have been like cars racing different directions.
When Schniederjans won the Carpet Capital, he didn’t count toward Tech’s fifth-place score; he played as an individual. Ogletree tied for 18th at the Maui Jim playing as an individual, although if he were in the lineup, all three of his scores — 69-70-72 — would’ve counted for the Jackets.
At the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate, on one of Tech’s two home courses, the Jackets’ 12th-place finish was a huge disappointment. It didn’t help that their top finisher, Whaley, was playing as an individual on his way to tying for 19th with an even-par 216.
Nothing’s been stranger than Whaley’s path.
He struggled from the jump, and so has Jacob Joiner. They each won a tournament last season, and yet both of Joiner’s previous outings this season were of the individual variety, like one of Whaley’s.
While he finished strong last fall at the Maui Jim Intercollegiate, where his third-round 69 paced the Jackets in Scottsdale, Ariz., that’s the only round that Whaley has counted for Tech this season.
“I feel like I’m finally where I wanted to be,” he said. “A lot to do with my full swing. I really struggled late in the summer, started to lose my swing. I had to grind it out with a swing I really didn’t like because I didn’t want to change mid-season, but we’ve changed up a lot of stuff.”
This team’s pecking order has been jumbled, what with Whaley, Jacob Joiner and fifth-year senior Michael Hines rarely in the mix. Perhaps the Jackets are about to stabilize, and get back to normal with the ACCs and No. 3 Virginia, No. 15 Wake Forest, No. 16 Clemson, No. 20 Duke and others looming.
Where the season began with every travel spot open through qualifying, Heppler locked down spots for Schniederjans, Clark, Ogletree and Strafaci for this event, opening one team position and the individual spot. Whaley’s been playing better recently, and the coach has noted it, but he opted not to simply give the spot away.
“I didn’t really want to pick him, because I don’t think me picking him makes him feel good about his golf,” Heppler said. “I wanted to give him a reason to believe. He’s been through all this stuff. I just believe that for him, he’s earned his way back here. There’s two ways for him to get back in the lineup. and I’ve always believed it’s best to play his way in.”