March 31, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
The Linksters are back to a zen spot, warming in the afterglow of something worth remembering rather than forgetting and not yet ready to ramp up for their next test, so Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler was a great conversationalist.
Hah! Who’s kidding who? That man is always a chatterbox.
Really, though, Heppler was even better than usual Monday in talking about the Yellow Jackets’ win March 24-25 at the Valspar Invitational in Palm Spring, Fla.
That’s because their previous outing, a 12th place finish at the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters March 7-9 in Las Vegas, was a disaster.
To be sure, Heppler will try to convince otherwise, but that’s part of his psychology. The Jackets could not leave Las Vegas fast enough. In 15 rounds combined, only one sub-par round was submitted by a Tech player.
Ollie Schniederjans fired a 70 on the final day.
Sure, the course was tough on everybody, but the Jackets were a walking razor burn.
Still, the coach would have you believe some good came of it.
Perhaps his team learned that it is possible to try too hard. Given the Jackets’ fairly poor traditional showing at Southern Highlands – which is in many ways a unique environment – they wanted to atone for past sins.
So perhaps they invested too much of themselves, and stressed collectively to the max at the first hiccup. Next thing you know, rails were jumped.
“You have to consider who was there. The field makes you look bad, too,” Heppler said. “We weren’t happy, but it wasn’t time to turn the ship over. We didn’t play as well as we’d have liked, but it was like having a basketball tournament and inviting Michigan State, UConn, Florida, Creighton, Kentucky and Louisville.
“They try too hard. They’d been to Las Vegas, and they understand the challenge, and they were ready for that. Maybe they got over ready.”
The No. 4 Jackets are Wisconsin; in the Final Four, but perhaps a bit forgotten.
Vegas was such a mess that it’s likely that even Heppler was concerned.
His team was ranked No. 3 nationally going into that tournament, yet finished 31 strokes behind UNLV – whom the Jackets beat last spring in the first round of NCAA match play action.
There was no evidence of hangover in Florida.
Tech was at or near the lead nearly all the way, parrying for a while with No. 3 Oklahoma State before pulling away in the final round to beat the Cowboys by eight strokes.
Schniederjans won the whole thing, too, with a 67-67-67-201, 12-under par tournament that left him two shots clear of the next golfer.
The coach wasn’t so sure going in that the Jackets had it in them because, well, he rarely has an idea what to expect. He could tell ahead of time that junior Anders Albertson was probably going to be off the mark, but …
“You never really know. We obviously had, for a change, not much of an academic situation going in as it was spring break, and we provided [players] with some pretty special opportunities in south Florida before the tournament,” Heppler said.
“Sometimes, in practice you can see … [Albertson’s] practice round didn’t look right. I thought we helped him a little bit. I thought he hit it well enough to be successful … right now, he’s struggling a little bit.”
Albertson kept struggling in Florida, going 71-72-77 to finish in a tie for 53rd.
His second round counted so he helped, but he wasn’t himself.
As a team, the Jackets were more like themselves.
So Heppler beamed a bit even a week after the fact and nearly two weeks before Tech will play at the Robert Kepler Intercollegiate April 12-13 at Ohio State.
“That was one of the best wins in five years we’ve had in the spring,” he said. “We’ve certainly struggled in Las Vegas. In fact, a fan from New York called and said he thought I needed to re-evaluate [entering that tournament].
“We really had not won a big event in the spring other than conference. That was a big win … out of state, against big-time competition on a great course.”
If Heppler’s hopes and dreams come true, the Florida trip was multiple wins.
He scheduled the Jackets into that tournament last fall with several goals: to have players play special courses over spring break (Jupiter Hills, Seminole, McArthur and Medalist), catch the eye of recruits, and prepare for Valspar and the NCAAs in late May/early June at Prarie Dunes in Hutchison, Kan.
“The trip was for recruiting, fundraising, to reward the kids for who they are and what they do, and part of it was preparation for the national championship if we get there,” Heppler said. “If we get to Prairie Dunes, there is going to be wind.
“The last day, we went up against a team [Oklahoma State] where the wind blows, and . . . our guys stood toe to toe. I promise you there will be a day at Prairie Dunes where you’re just going to have to survive [the wind].”
There were plenty of reasons for Tech’s trip to south Florida.
“Some boosters and important people were there,” Heppler said before launching into the value of Tech’s itinerary as a recruiting tool.
Even if recruits were not present, they know of the Jackets’ schedule.
“That’s the power of social media,” the coach said. “You can’t let everybody know [by phone or direct contact] where you are every day. You hope that helps.”
The lure of playing fancy courses like the Jackets did is a recruiting tool of note.
Division I golf coaches have a maximum of 4.5 scholarships to divvy up among players. Occasionally, Tech will find itself recruiting a top prospect against a program willing to offer a full scholarship.
Heppler rarely works that way, much like baseball coach Danny Hall divides his scholarships among student-athletes.
So, “If an out-of-state kid is reaching into his pocket to play $22,000 [for roughly half his fees], you try to provide a real quality experience in a way the NCAA allows,” the coach explained. “I can’t give out any more scholarships. It’s why kids go certain places.
“If a kid comes to Georgia Tech and faces the academics rigors and digs into his own [family’s] pocket like that, we want to reward them in other ways. We raise funds for this kind of thing.”
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