April 23, 2018
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– Chris Petefish found himself perfectly scripted Sunday afternoon, although while standing on the 18th tee at Old North State Club, he gave no thought to the merger of history and real time that made the moment almost poetic and his position nearly divine.
There was the lone senior for No. 5 Georgia Tech, in the last group of golfers in the ACC Championship, where just ahead of him No. 15 Clemson — a perpetual rival — had gained a shot on the Yellow Jackets to leave the Tigers a single stroke back of the lead.
The 568-yard dogleg left has a stamp-sized fairway landing area, where if you miss left, there is a lake downslope to worry about. A little right, and you’re upslope in gunk.
“That tee shot you just have to step up and hit a pure golf swing,” Petefish said.
And the senior was the right guy in the right place at the right time, although one need go back in time to understand why.
The lone remaining link to Tech’s 2015 ACC title team found that right rough in the third and final round when he was a freshman, and turned it to gold.
He banked the Jackets’ only birdie on that hole in regulation, which helped Tech into a playoff with, yep, Clemson. Then, he birdied it again on the second playoff hole as the Jackets won their 16th conference golf championship.
“I didn’t know how big it was, but if I didn’t make that [regulation] birdie we would have lost,” he recalled Monday morning. “I hit it so far right off the tee, I was surprised I was still in play. Then, I hit a five wood or something to about a five- or six-foot putt for birdie.”
That team was led by All-Americans Ollie Schniederjans, at the time the No. 1-ranked amateur golfer in the world, and fellow senior Anders Albertson, who would go on to win the Byron Nelson Award as the nation’s top graduating senior golfer.
Fast forward to a very different situation.
This team is paced by everybody — sophomores Tyler Strafaci, Luke Schniederjans and Andy Ogletree and freshman Noah Norton included — yet Petefish was the only Jacket left with a chance to sew up another title.
“The plan back then was pretty much for Ollie and Anders to shoot 68 and we’d just put up decent scores,” Chris said. “I felt more like a leader this time.”
The only Tiger still with a chance to affect change in Petefish’s playing group was Clemson sophomore Doc Redman, the 2017 U.S. Amateur champion. So there was that.
This would be a different tee shot.
“Petey” piped it.
“I was able to hit one of the best drives of my life,” he said. “Right down the middle.”
Good thing. It had been an up-and-down day. Tech opened with a six-shot lead, and by the time the Jackets and Tigers made the turn, Clemson led.
And then Strafaci went off. He birdied, Nos. 10, 11, 12, 14 and 18 to help wrestle back the yoke.
Tyler was not rattled, and apparently none of the Jackets were uptight.
Maybe they were more at ease for sake of the soothing properties of the lakeside house that head coach Bruce Heppler has been renting for years in New London, N.C. There’s a ping-pong table, a dock where players can fish, and they decompress and separate from their game between rounds.
Years ago, the ACC assigned Tech a house, and the coach said, “we had three guys sleeping on the floor.” So Heppler found another one, and before this tournament the coach said, “there’s the house … the lucky house.”
Schniederjans isn’t claiming magic, but he loved the abode. Last year, the ACCs were contested in South Carolina as the conference moved the tournament and several championships out of North Carolina for political reasons.
This time, they played ping pong, fished, ate Heppler’s weirdly superstitious waffles, ice cream and chocolate syrup, and “watched [NBA] playoff basketball,” said Schniederjans, who set the Jackets off with a 65 in the first round.
“I don’t know if it helps our nerves and keeps us calm, but it just brings an air and vibe, an optimistic vibe. It just seems like there’s an air around the place, and we know what guys [who’ve stayed there] in the past have done. It’s just a really fun week.”
Heppler and assistant coach Drew McGee go out of their way to keep from going out of the way. There’s not much preaching. Message management is made simple.
“We just try to get the guys freed up so they’re not worried about making mistakes,” Heppler said. “This is what we do.”
Petefish had more to do as he locked in for his second shot. Looking at 196 yards to the pin after Redman played his second from far right to short right of the green, Chris pulled an eight iron. Yes, an eight iron.
“I had a flier lie, a bit of downslope,” he said. “It was probably the best iron I hit all week. I wasn’t hitting them well all week.”
Well, that one came to rest about a first down short of the cup.
As the final threesome approached the green, the rest of the Jackets stood together on the backside, the high side. Heppler was a couple yards away, waiting, powerless, and feeding his memory bank with his 12th ACC title hanging in the balance.
“I’m not talking to anybody. The guys are talking a little, I guess,” he said.
For Heppler, memories of moments like this last, “Forever,” he said. “That’s why you get up every morning. You always go back to certain places, and shots and putts. It’s like the Masters. Same tournament every year. Not every memory has been perfect.”
The Jackets weren’t perfect.
Before the tournament, Heppler made a difficult decision. Norton leads the team in scoring, but he missed the last regular-season event, the Irish Creek Intercollegiate April 7-8 in Kannapolis, N.C., with a muscular injury. Senior Jacob Joiner played in his place, and tied Petefish for low honors as Clemson won to even its record against Tech at 2-2.
Joiner traveled with the Jackets to play if Norton did not fare well in practice.
Norton played, and in the first round, his 77 did not count for Tech.
But player substitutions are not allowed in college golf once a tournament has started other than in the match-play portion of the NCAA championships if there is an injury.
Joiner will graduate in a couple weeks with a degree in business administration and a concentration in marketing, and then give professional golf a whirl. His backup plan is coaching, and he got an up-close view of what it’s like during competition to have so little control over what happens between the ropes.
For one thing, unlike when he competes, he was following scores on his phone, which merely made him all the more nervous than if he were playing.
“When I’m playing, I don’t look [at scores],” he said. “It is very different kind of nervousness. I definitely felt more of the nerves [coaches] felt than when I’m on the course.”
Petefish wasn’t nervous. He was analyzing.
Redman, off the green, played first. A nice shot left a makeable birdie putt.
Chris went into process.
“You kind of have to assess,” he said. “I knew it was a one-shot lead. Doc’s got a five- or six-foot downhill, pretty straight putt. I wanted to be somewhat aggressive.”
Petefish had an advantage. Below the hole, he was sizing up an eagle putt as Redman was staring at a birdie.
Nevermind the eagle. Match Redman’s birdie, and Tech wins. A lag putt was in order.
“I paced it off and had it at 33 feet,” Chris said. “The tendency for players is to leave that short. I wanted to be sure how hard I had to hit it.”
Soon, on a gray day, his ball came to rest a little more than two feet from the cup.
Redman’s birdie putt slipped by high.
And Petefish tapped in for birdie, giving the Jackets a two-stroke win.
It was similar and different at the same time. Tech won without any generals. Nobody finished inside the top 10 individually.
But Strafaci and Schniederjans tied for 12th at eight-under par 208, Petefish tied for 17th at 209 and Ogletree tied for 24th at 213. Norton finished well back, yet his 71 in the second round counted toward the team score when Schniederjans shot 74.
When it was over, the Jackets posed for pictures on the 18th green, with the trophy from Georgia Tech’s 17th ACC championship … in the hands of Joiner.
It was fitting. Everybody mattered.
“I’ve always liked that hole,” Petefish said of No. 18. “I liked being under the pressure. Straf was the unsung hero, because if he didn’t hit shoot 31 on back nine, I wouldn’t have been in that position.”
Heppler’s won a dozen of these, but, “Never like this before. We won because we have more depth. We won because everybody contributed. If you don’t have dudes, you can get the best waffles and chocolate syrup in the world and it’s not going to matter.”