April 7, 2018
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Six is not the most popular number around the Georgia Tech golf team. In fact, it’s the number everyone seeks to avoid.
“The sixth guy doesn’t feel that good about it because he doesn’t get to go,” said head coach Bruce Heppler. “That’s the challenging part of our sport. Every other team when they travel, all the kids get to go. When we travel, half of them don’t. The sixth guy, he doesn’t get to even put a jersey on. There’s no substitution, there’s no in and out.
“I tell everyone, ‘If you want to go, play 1. Don’t be 5 or 6, because I might see something different than you do, and you may not,’” he added. “At the end of the lineup, it becomes a choice. At the top of the lineup those are decided pretty clearly. It’s been harder to play here than it has been the past two years.”
This inner competition has made the Georgia Tech hard to play against as well. The Jackets began play at this weekend’s Irish Creek Intercollegiate at The Club at Irish Creek in Kannapolis, N.C., ranked third in the country in the latest GCAA Coaches poll (they’re fourth according to the Golfstat rankings).
“It’s good, I guess it’s good for recruiting, but at the end of the day, they don’t give out awards based on rankings,” said Heppler. “You have to get it done in the postseason and play in your conference tournament. They don’t give that trophy away because you’re the highest-ranked team there. I’ve been doing it long enough that I don’t get too cranked up about rankings.”
Heppler gets more cranked up about the team’s second-lowest drop score in the country (74.81), and the grouping of his top six players — freshman Noah Norton (No. 39), sophomores Tyler Strafaci (No. 49), Luke Schniederjans (No. 57) and Andy Ogletree (No. 78), senior Jacob Joiner (No. 84) and senior Chris Petefish (No. 115). Strafaci, Schniederjans, Ogletree, Joiner, and Petefish will play this weekend. Four of them have actually won a tournament in their collegiate careers.
“We’re all trending in the right direction as a team,” said Petefish, who earned his first collegiate tournament victory on March 11 at the General James Hackler Championship in Myrtle Beach, S.C., shooting a seven-under, 209, including a final-round 69. It also was the Jackets’ first win of the spring and third of the year.
“We’ve had a lot of consistency this year. We got a good win as a team in South Carolina, and that built a lot of confidence. I think we also know that we have more in the tank. We haven’t had all five guys have a great week at the same time, or at least four. So we know it’s in there. We have one of those weeks where four or five of the guys have a top-10 and we just run away with it. I think it says a lot about the depth of our team that we have five guys that can win a tournament, six guys, really.”
Petefish knows about being sixth man. That was him at the end of last season as he endured the heartbreak of missing out on postseason play after being part of it as both a freshman and sophomore.
“It was definitely a personal disappointment not to make the postseason squad, but golf is a game — and so is life — that when you get knocked down, you really find a lot about yourself,” said the Danville, Calif., native. “Are you gonna let it affect you and just stay down, or are you going to come back fighting? I’ve learned a lot about myself that I was resilient enough to come back and use that to kind of springboard me.”
Heppler is proud of Petefish’s resilience in responding to adversity.
“He used (not participating in postseason) in a positive way. I think he used it as fire to maybe show me that I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “He had a great summer and created a nice national ranking in the amateurs, then came back and I think he was under a lot of pressure — self-imposed — ‘I missed last year, I’m a senior now. I can’t have that happen again.’ He’s had a terrific spring.”
Heppler is as proud of the terrific spring the underclassmen have had and how they’ve been anything but intimidated by the level of competition they’re teeing off against every week. Their play bodes well heading into ACCs, which begin April 20-22, then NCAA Regionals (May 14-16) and NCAA Championship (May 25-31).
“The three sophomores, who were freshmen last year, played every event and were at the regional in Stanford, played an ACC Tournament, so they’ve experienced this before,” he said. “If Noah’s part of that, he’s our highest-ranked guy right now, as a freshman, he’s played in a lot of big stuff, he actually won the (2016 AJGA Ping Invitational at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla., where the NCAA Championship will be staged). We’re young, but they have some experience. So they know what it’s going to be about.”
Petefish sees the balanced lineup as a threat to do great things in postseason.
“I think it’s a different balance because there’s more underclassmen that are playing than upperclassmen,” he said. “You have the three sophomores that are really pivotal to this team, who will be throughout their careers here. It’s a little different than when I got here. You had Ollie (Schniederjans), Anders (Albertson), Seth (Reeves), Bo (Andrews) and Richy (Werenski) who were all upperclassmen. They all really played really consistently all the time when they were juniors and seniors. It’s a different dynamic, a different growing-up process, but we definitely play for each other. I think our depth is something that’s going to be a really big advantage going to postseason. Especially when you get into the match play at Nationals, since it’s a match play format and you have five guys that count, you have to win three matches.”
That the Jackets have not finished out of the top five in the fall or spring says more than their not having a player ranked in the national top-35.
“I think it gives everyone, basically, a shot to be ‘The Guy’ that week,” said Petefish. “We all push each other. We’re all competitive. We’re all really good players. It’s a little bit like a basketball team that has five really solid players that you don’t know who is going to take the last shot. We don’t have a guy that’s top-5 in the world … yet. There are a lot of young guys on this team that are very, very good. It just talks about our depth in that one through six, we can do really great things individually.”
Heppler is not surprised by the way things have worked out.
“It’s kind of what I was hoping for and thinking it could be,” he said. “After the way we finished last year, knowing who was coming back and who we had coming in, I thought we could have a really good team.
“There were a lot of givens in my mind. This group is really good physically,” he added. “It’s like a guy that runs a 4.3 doesn’t usually slow down in a year or two. Even though there’s the mental side to it, physically, these guys have some pretty strong skills. To imagine what it could be was a little easier. They’re consistent. You can kind of plan on consistency. It’s hard to plan on inconsistency.”
The plan has worked very well thus far, as the Jackets have finished top-5 in all eight events they’ve been in starting in the fall and continuing through the spring, and in those eight tournaments have only had three players not finish in the top 50. There’s nothing that builds confidence and a winning mentality like winning or being in position to.
“I think their belief has come a long way. I think they believe in themselves,” Heppler said. “We’ve had some young teams before, when Matt (Kuchar) was a sophomore and Bryce (Molder) was a freshman (1997-98). That’s a growth process to where, when you get out of the van, if you’ve won some stuff, you start perceiving yourself as something different so I think it’s growing.
“I know that you never want to go to the ACC Tournament not having won a tournament during the year, because why would that be your first one?” Heppler added, with a laugh. “To know how to play near the lead, play on the lead, they’re growing into that. That’s a maturation process and I think we’re right in the middle of that maybe further along than I give them credit sometimes. It’s a good situation.”