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#TGW: Time to Match Up

Sept. 9, 2016

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

– It’s swell to have more golfers to go around, yet as Georgia Tech gets down to business for the first time this season, a bigger roster does not guarantee success and alarms are still going off around the Yellow Jackets.

Really, one might say that bells never stop ringing in Bruce Heppler’s head.

Wheels turn forever in there, and Tech’s coach – whose perpetual energy and ideas drove the Jackets to 11 ACC titles in his first 20 years on The Flats – rolled out a doozy of plan to prepare for the Carpet Capital Collegiate this weekend.

For the first time, Heppler put his 11-man squad through match-play qualifying rather than stroke-play to assemble his five-man travel team for the season-opening stroke-play event at The Farm Golf Club in Rocky Face, Ga.

Why? He hopes to pen a more familiar narrative, and get back to being Tech after season No. 21 saw the Ramblin’ Wreck wander out of its lane.

There is no way to erase last season, when a seven-man squad failed to win a single tournament for the first time since 2007-08. For Heppler, 2015-16 was a bitter golf ball to swallow, especially since the Jackets won 10 times over the two previous campaigns.

He’s anxious to over-write.

“Last year being so thin, there wasn’t a lot of urgency to see who got to go,” the coach explained of his new methodology. “I got to thinking about it, and match play creates urgency … it’s win, lose or draw every hole.

“You need to respond right away. I wanted to increase pressure. We played nine-hole matches, so you didn’t have a lot of time to mess around.”

The surprising format fetched surprising results.

Guess who’s playing at The Farm?

That’s freshman Andy Ogletree, who won eight of an available 10 points, junior James Clark (7.5), sophomore Tyler Joiner (6.0), fifth-year senior Michael Hines (5.5) and junior Chris Petefish (5.5).

Freshman Luke Schniederjans (5.0) will compete as an individual.

Tech’s only two tournament medalists from last season, senior Vincent Whaley (4.5) and junior Jacob Joiner (2.5), who won the 2015 CCC, will stay home, presumably to practice.

“The team’s more competitive this year,” Hines said, “and Jacob and Vince are going to get after it while we’re at The Farm.”

That’s a good bet, and Ogletree’s emergence might qualify as more predictable than some might first think.

He arrived at Tech the No. 11-ranked member of his recruiting class nationally and with a five-stroke win at the prestigious Cardinal Amateur fresh in his pocket.

A long, lanky lad at 6-feet-1, 155 pounds, Ogletree pounds the ball and the young man from Little Rock, Miss., has game around and on the greens, too.

Two days before six rounds of qualifying began at the East Lake Golf Club, he fired a course-record 64 there from new tee boxes.

In qualifying, each Jacket squared off once against every one of his teammates in a series of nine-hole showdowns. Each win was worth a point, each draw worth a half. Lose, and you get nothing.

Ogletree won or halved his first nine matches, and he doesn’t sound surprised — at least not by the results.

“[Match play] was a pleasant surprise, because I love playing match play,” he said. “I played a lot in Mississippi and I played in the U.S. Junior going into my senior year of high school. That gave me a lot of confidence in match play.

“To be honest, my game just feels like I’m finally getting to the point where everything is falling into place. I’m finally hitting it good and putting it good at the same time. I’ve worked super-hard this summer.”

Qualifying absolutely produced some surprises.

Joiner, the younger, played in three events last year, just once as part of Tech’s scoring team. His scoring average of 75.56 was sixth on the team, and his nine rounds played were fewest among the Jackets.

Joiner, the elder, played in 10 of 11 events.

Whaley was one of three Jackets (along with Clark and Petefish) to travel to every tournament, and his four top 10 finishes a year ago matched the rest of his teammates combined.

Jacob and Whaler will have to wait, though, to try to qualify to travel again.

“No matter what you did the year before, you start the same,” Heppler said. “We’ve always started over every year.”

Heppler rarely grandfathers players onto travel squads, although there have been exceptions.

Beyond trying to inspire his players, he believes he’s helping prepare them for their preferred futures as professionals in what can be a cruel sport.

Former Yellow Jacket Chesson Hadley (2010), for example, in the 2014 and 2015 seasons on the PGA Tour won more than $2.8 million with a combined 16 top 25 finishes, but he’s playing right now in the Finals – the minor leagues — to earn back his PGA Tour card for 2016-17.

The top 125 points earners from the recently completed PGA Tour regular season already earned cards for next season, but Hadley finished 159th even though he won $503,933 this season. He missed 14 of 27 cuts.

“Everybody who walks in my office says they want to play on the PGA Tour,” Heppler reminds. “Teach them to understand you’re as good as your last week, your last round … There’s only one way out, and it’s playing. If a guy doesn’t like that, he needs to go get a desk job.”

Hines last year played in nine events, including two starts as an individual.

His best finish was a tie for 27th in the 66-man Clemson Invitational, which Whaley won. Hines and Petefish tied for the fourth and fifth spots ahead of Schniederjans, Whaley, freshmen Tyler Strafaci (4.0) and Anton Serafini (4.0), Jacob Joiner and junior Michael Pisciotta (2.5).

“When there’s 11 guys, you have to be playing well to make the travel team,” Hines said. “Plus, these four freshmen all can play. Andy had eight [points], and he shot a 64 out at East Lake and the rough is ridiculous. There’s not going to be many scores that match that in the PGA Tour Championship [in a couple weeks].”

Often, Heppler believes, players are more conservative in stroke play until the final few holes of the last round. He invokes the team match play Ryder Cup, where the European side has dominated the U.S. in recent years, as a great example of golf played aggressively.

“Why? They make more putts, and it’s because they’ve played that format since they were kids,” Heppler said. “It just feels different, and it starts on the very first hole. I want them to realize it’s up to them, and figure out how to go whip somebody. I saw more putts made. That doesn’t happen the other way.”

So maybe it doesn’t take a private eye to peer into Heppler’s mind.

Hines also pointed out that the NCAA Championships include match play after three days of stroke play trims a field of 30 teams to eight.

Before missing the NCAAs last spring and going back from 2014-15, Tech finished No. 9, No. 5, No. 2. No. 6, No. 2, No. 2 and No. 10 in NCAA stroke play in seven appearances.

The overarching goals are to win the ACC title, and make it back to NCAA Finals. Tech will start the chase Friday in a field that includes recent NCAA match play participants LSU and South Carolina, and NCAA Championship teams Florida, Alabama, Virginia, Florida and Auburn.

“It was definitely very different,” Hines said of qualifying. “I’ve always wanted a match play qualifier. Not very many of us are experienced at it, but the final match of the year comes down to match play.

“In 108 holes [of stroke play qualifying], there’s not really much pressure. With there being only nine holes, there’s so much on the line. You got to play your way on … just put your head down and go beat somebody. That’s kind of the mentality he wants us to have after last year.”


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