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Three Straight ACC Titles -- And This One Wasn't Close

April 24, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

ACC officials were scrambling for record books Sunday afternoon, trying to make sense of the havoc wrought by Georgia Tech. Yellow Jackets coach Bruce Heppler was similarly searching for a friendly colleague.

That was one very, very tough assignment.

With a team score of 831 to Duke’s 851, the Jackets won their third straight ACC golf title over the weekend. They went about it like a tornado might whiz through a series of huts. This stuff has grown old for those who live under the straw roofs.

Tech whipped the conference by 15 shots last season, and Sunday then-some-d it. They wrapped up a blowout of colossal proportions by whipping everybody. Wait, no. This wasn’t a beating . . . it was a naked caning.

Senior Jackets Paul Haley (206), Kyle Scott (207) and J.T. Griffin (208) finished 1-2-T3. That just does not happen in major conferences. That is unreal.

So, while scrambling because the conclusion of the ACC golf tournament coincided with my having to cover the Hawks vs. the Magic in an NBA playoff game, I got Heppler on the phone. I asked if he’d encountered any interesting comments or reactions from opposing coaches or players when it was over?

“I was looking for a hand to shake, but that was difficult,” said Heppler, who’s now won eight ACC titles in 15 years, including five of the last six (the first two were shared). “I think everybody is getting tired of this.”

Except Heppler, of course, and his Jackets.

Tech has it going so well that the player most ranked No. 4 on his squad entering the ACC won the whole thing.

To be right, Haley wasn’t exactly slumping going in. He won a week ago, too.

The weirdest thing about the Jackets is that the player who’d entered April as their top player for the season, junior James White, flamed out a week ago before rallying with a 68- Sunday at the Old North State Club at Uwharrie Point in New Concord, N.C.

In fact, going in, Tech’s Haley, Scott, Griffin and White were ranked Nos. 4, 3, 2 and 1 on their team and finished in exact reverse. Only because White shot that 68 did he pass freshman teammate Richie Werenski, who shot a 73. Werenski was in the No. 3 spot after shooting 69 Saturday.

White finished at 213 for an eighth-place tie, Werenski at 218 to tie for 21st.

“James is an interesting kid. If he’s not dialed into the station, there’s a lot of static. It’s the nature of the way he practices, the way he does his schoolwork,” Heppler told me a few days ago, between tournaments – after White played poorly last weekend.

“If he turns the knob down on anything, the results are horrific. He tried to do that last fall with his grades. He’s a 3.8 student, [thinking] `I’m in my junior year, I’ve got the Hope scholarship, I’m done . . . I’m going to really focus on my golf.’ He flunked his first three or four tests, or did very poorly.

“It drove him crazy. He said, `That’s now who I am; that’s not how I do my stuff.’ And he ended up making really good grades when it was all over. When he does not play complete attention to what he’s doing, he struggles.”

Haley, on the other hand, has re-discovered his groove in a big way.

A big part of Tech’s success is explained by the fact that Heppler has conditioned players to try to make good shots rather than worry about making bad shots. They trust each other, the idea being that even if they screw up teammates are going to be there to pick up the scorecard.

This is the second postseason in a row where Haley’s jacked it up. He earned All-America honors last season after a middling regular season.

“Paul even mentioned that [recently], what seems to be different. A year ago, he played well enough to be fifth man,” Heppler said. “He said the mindset for him has gone from, `Oh shoot, I better not make another bogey here because we’re going to be counting a 78,’ to where his feeling now is, `I got go make another birdie or I’m not going to count today.’

“That’s a whole different way to play. They have enough belief in each other they’re not worrying about having to post two 77s. It’s, `If I don’t shoot 69, they’re going to throw [my score] out today.’ “

As we spoke, Heppler was holding up his team. They awaited onboard their charter flight from the Albermarle, Va., airport.

That was alright. Those dudes were clearly having fun. Are you kidding me?

They just finished scorching earth.

Their score of 831 was an ACC record, they were 33 under par for another conference mark, and it was the first time an ACC team had four players finish in the top 10.

Tech was 17-under par after the first two rounds, and scored 16-under Sunday.

Haley and Scott were tied briefly for the tournament lead at the 54th and final hole after Scott nearly eagled. Then, Haley nailed a 10-first birdie putt for medalist honors.

Tech’s top four all birdied the final hole Sunday, when the Jackets clinched a berth in the NCAA tournament for the 14th year in a row.

Asking Heppler to rank this ACC title among the eight he’s won as Tech’s coach is cliché, but he tried.

“We’ve had some great teams, and great players, but all I know is that for those three seniors to go 1-2-3 and graduate in 10 days is great,” he said. “We played some of the best golf we’ve ever played.”

Told ya. I could see this coming from miles away. Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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