Feb. 1, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Cliché rarely does much for Bruce Heppler, but Georgia Tech’s golf coach is among the best in the business and he’s that way with an open mind. So, when the Yellow Jackets were recently pushed aside, he went to the bulletin board.
The youngish Jackets were Colt-like last fall, which is to say erratic, and they closed horribly. After firing an 11-over par 299 in the season’s final round, at the Kiawah Classic to finish 10th, they were left to stew for a few months.
Beyond the fact that the tournament’s third round was canceled by weather that washed away Tech’s crack at atonement, the Jackets soon slipped from No. 9 in Golfweek’s national rankings to No. 26.
There, the program got a heavy dose of cold, winter rain early and in the face.
Not long after winning the ACC title last spring for the eighth time in the last 10 years, the Jackets lost seniors Ollie Schniederjans, Anders Albertson – two of the most accomplished Tech golfers – and Drew Czuchry to graduation.
Heppler refuses to believe they lost their pride.
So when Golfweek came out with conference previews a few weeks ago, Heppler seized an opportunity to turn another slight into motivation.
Six ACC teams are ranked ahead of Tech, and in the ACC preview No. 3 Wake Forest is picked to win the conference title. In the “Could challenge” category are No. 4 Florida State, No. 6 North Carolina and No. 13 Clemson.
One team is considered a “sleeper.” That’s No. 14 Duke.
Nevermind that No. 20 Virginia isn’t mentioned.
The coach has Georgia Tech on his mind. So between the Jan. 20 start of spring practice, amid more horrible weather, the coach took action in the buildup to the start of the spring season, Thursday-Saturday in the Amer Ari Invitational at the Waikoloa Resort.
“We weren’t even mentioned as one of five squads who could compete. I conveniently printed that out and put it on their lockers,” Heppler said. “I tried to lay out some things…”
Qualifying was cut short for this tournament by foul weather (twice the Jackets have practiced indoors at the PGA Superstore), and fourth-year junior Michael Hines, junior Vincent Whaley, and sophomores Chris Petefish, Michael Pisciotta and James Clark will represent Tech in Hawai`i.
That’s a key word. Heppler’s looking for them to represent Tech.
All of them had solid moments last fall, yet all of them played now and then as if the sport was new to them. Focus was an issue, consistency fleeting.
The coach was not pleased last fall when his players griped about going to Kiawah for sake of what they perceived to be a weaker field by Tech’s standards. Then, they laid that egg and sank on the respect-from-outside meter.
There is no room to gripe now.
Heppler set that silliness straight, and the field in Hawai`i is stacked with seven Top 25 squads: No. 1 Auburn, No. 5 Stanford, No. 8 Southern Cal, No. 9 Oklahoma, No. 10 Texas, No. 15 Arizona State and No. 23 Washington.
In addition to the Jackets and a handful of other teams, No. 30 UCLA, No. 32 Oregon and No. 33 Texas Tech are expected as well.
“I mentioned to them before … the business about, ‘Why’d we go to this tournament?'” Heppler recalled. “I let them know there were top 12, top 15 teams in this tournament. With direct conversation and some sarcasm, I let them know what it means to be on this team.”
There are always unknowns in golf, and this team has had over-sized numbers.
An abbreviated preseason practice run and incomplete qualifying haven’t helped. Yet Heppler and assistant Jeff Pierce have spent more time working between their golfers’ ears, and they’re eager to check for resonation.
“With the lack of really seeing them play since we got back…I’m interested to see where the energy level is, and where the focus is and see if we can’t return,” the coach said. “We had one bad day, and certainly don’t want to over-react. We were ranked ninth in the country. I want to see guys go out and compete.”