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#TGW: There's No Place Like Home

May 21, 2014

NCAA Championship Central

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

When traveling to the land of stormy possibilities on Wednesday, the Georgia Tech golf team made a return trip and they were calm. The Yellow Jackets have practiced weathering storms and have even acclimated themselves with Kansas.

The NCAA Championship begins Friday at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., and while no Jackets have competed there before this season, Ollie Schniederjans, Seth Reeves, Anders Albertson, Bo Andrews and Richard Werenski are all making a return trip this week – both to Kansas, and the NCAAs.

One week after the fall season ended as Tech finished second at the United States Collegiate Championship at the Golf Club of Georgia, head coach Bruce Heppler and his squad went to take Prairie Dunes for a test drive over the final weekend of October.

Actually, the Jackets played Prairie Dunes twice.

Call it anticipation.

Heppler had no way of knowing for sure that his team would qualify out of NCAA regional play for the nationals, but he had a pretty good hunch. Given that, he did not want his team – if Tech qualified – to be limited to the single practice round that teams are allowed today before the tournament begins Friday.

So, the Jackets spent the last weekend of October in Kansas on a field trip.

“You used to have two practice rounds [before NCAAs], and now you only get one [because the tournament format is longer],” the coach explained. “They changed the rules a little bit to where you can go some places without competing, and we’ve kind of taken advantage of that.

“I think they know the sightlines now, know where the clubhouse is, and I think it will make a big difference. Now, it’s just [practicing] chipping and putting because they know where they’re going. It’s a lot to get done in one day, and we don’t have to do that.”

Tech’s trip worked out better than expected. Wind is likely to be a factor in Hutchinson – today’s forecast calls for 20 mph – and when the Jackets were there last fall, they played into multiple winds.

“Saturday, we played north wind, and Sunday we played a south wind and those are pretty much the only directions the wind blows out there so we got to see both types,” Albertson said of Tech’s visit to the 6,948-yard, par 70 Prairie Dunes. “It changes the holes completely. I think it was a good, productive weekend.

“Sitting in my hotel, I know what I’m getting into. I’ve hit every tee shot twice, and there is a little comfort level in that. I already know all the clubs I’ll hit off the tees. [Today’s] practice round will be more about figuring out the course conditions, just seeing how firm the greens are, what the rough is like.”

This will be the third consecutive weekend in action for the Jackets as they won the ACCs and their NCAA regional in previous weeks.

In many years past, there was an off week between regionals and nationals. Not this week. Heppler is fine with that, especially since Tech has been out of school for two weeks.

Where last spring there were 10 days between the final day of regionals and the first day of nationals, this spring there are six.

“We’ve had a week to get ready for this [in the past], and I’m not sure this isn’t better,” Heppler said. “I’ve had to try to find stuff to keep them busy for seven days and you just kind of sit around and think about it, and think about it and think about it.

“I think it’s a lot less stressful. It’s better turning it around in three days than seven because . . . that’s a lot of time to think about the national championships.”

Tech is lining up for a war of attrition as the NCAA has again modified the format of its national tournament.

The top 30 teams and six unattached individuals will play three rounds, from Friday-Sunday, to determine the top eight teams and the top 40 individuals.

On Monday, the top 40 individuals will carry scores from their first three rounds and play a fourth to determine the individual champion (a new wrinkle).

Tuesday will feature match play quarterfinals and semifinals from the top eight teams as determined by the first three days of stroke play. Wednesday, the two surviving squads will go head to head in a match play championship.

The Jackets, who have won four straight tournaments (five including a match play event) and six over the course of the fall and spring seasons, are seeded No. 4 and will play Friday and Saturday with No. 5 Cal and No. 6 Georgia.

Heppler anticipated the likelihood of high winds and a variety of weather conditions. He knows that part of the country from time served as an assistant at Oklahoma State from 1991-95.

Temperatures have been in the mid-90s recently in Hutchinson. Today, there is a good chance of thunderstorms, and tornadoes are not foreign to the plains states.

When the Jackets last competed in this part of the country, weather undermined their efforts; they failed to qualify out of a 2012 regional in Oklahoma.

Tech’s schedule, set by Heppler, has been loaded with tournaments where wind was likely, and in fact prevalent. The Jackets faced gusts well past 20 mph while winning the Robert Kepler Invitational last month at Ohio State.

“I think they feel a whole lot better about [playing in wind] than they did six months ago,” the coach said. “The fact that we won in Ohio in weather, and in Florida in weather, and in Raleigh there was some weather . . . they have a whole lot more peace of mind that they’re capable of playing when it’s hard.

“We’ve worked toward making them embrace that. I’ve tried to make them to want it to be bad because the better the player you are, the worse the conditions can be and you can still be successful. When we went to Oklahoma, I got a lot of questions: `Is it going to blow?’ Those questions don’t come any more.”

Schniederjans is not likely to be blown away by the wind. He tied for medalist honors at Ohio State, and was well ahead of the field on the first day of the ACCs when the wind kicked up on his way to winning there as well.

“We’ve played a lot in the wind this semester, and . . . that suits me really well,” he said. “And I think these guys are all good ball strikers as well. It takes a lot of creativity and experience in the wind, and I think we have that.”

The Jackets have an idea what to expect, and they said they’re fine with high expectations. They’re ranked No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index and No. 4 by Golfstat.

Winning a lot has prepared them to win more.

“When you’re winning this many times in a row, you’re handling expectations each week. We’re now expected to contend each week and we’re doing that,” Schniederjans said. “If you’re a favorite, I don’t think it affects how you play.

“When it comes down to the shot you’re playing, you’re not thinking, `Oh, I’m a favorite.’ . . . All your attention is focused on the task at hand.”

That comment would make Heppler proud.

“We try to open the door every year with expectations. That’s why they came here. It’s why they chose the program. I think that’s every day,” Heppler said. “I don’t think this is anything new. We don’t try to build to where, `This is our year,’ or, `This is our best chance.’

“The goal every year is to win ACCs, advance through regionals and then try to go to NCAAs and win a championship.”

Tech’s expectations are higher for having been there – to Kansas, and to the NCAAs, where last season the Jackets finished second in stroke play before falling to eventual national champion Alabama in match play semifinals.

“To have gone out there having played two rounds, and knowing we’ll play one more is going to be really big. We know kind of what to expect,” Werenski said. “We kind of know the strategy. We’ve got a good feel for the course. We’ve got a better feel than a lot of the teams out there.”

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