By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
- Chris Petefish went away and cleared his head, came back and blew away everyone. That qualified as something of a surprise.
It didn’t come as a shock last weekend when Georgia Tech’s golf squad won the General James Hackler Championship at the Dunes Golf and Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, unless you look deep at the senior who led the way and consider that a key Yellow Jacket wasn’t with the team as sophomore Tyler Strafaci was playing in a PGA Tour event.
The Jackets are ranked No. 4 nationally, and they won two tournaments previously this season, so winning is not new. It was head coach Bruce Heppler’s 52nd tournament win, after all, in his 23rd season.
It wasn’t a complete stunner that Tech outpaced No. 2 Texas A&M and 13 other squads over 36 holes Saturday and 18 more on Sunday -- until you look at who led the way.
Petefish fired a seven-under par 209 and finish two strokes clear of freshman teammate Noah Norton and Virginia’s Andrew Orischak with rounds of 72-68-69.
Who had that on their scorecard?
In and out of the lineup all season, the Jackets “sixth man” paced the field with a clean mental slate in the wake of a January departure to play a tournament in Australia.
“I felt confident going into the tournament. Going into the tournament, I played some really good golf, in the mid-60s recreationally,” Petefish said. “I felt really good. Not a lot of technical thoughts. I knew a few holes in I felt really good about my game.”
The Petefish path hasn’t been straight.
After graduating high school early and enrolling at Tech in January, 2014, the native of Danville, Calif., was in the lineup more often than not as a freshman and sophomore and then early in his junior year before slipping out of the lineup late in the season.
So, he left, sort of, and played a couple amateur tournaments as the school year wound down and his teammates chased the postseason.
That went pretty well.
He won the Azalea Amateur in Charleston, S.C., last April, and tied for seventh in the Terra Cotta Invitational in Florida in May. After school was out, he tied for second in the Monroe Invitational in New York in June, was runner-up in the Porter Cup in July and won a qualifier in Pennsylvania to punch his ticket to the U.S. Amateur in June.
He carried his hot sticks into the fall, tying for 15th -- with teammates Strafaci, Luke Schniederjans and Norton -- as the Jackets won the season-opening Carpet Capital Collegiate near Dalton.
Then, he slipped, finishing in a tie for 53rd in the Maui Jim Intercollegiate, and played as a non-scoring individual in Tech’s final two fall events, the Franklin American Mortgage Collegiate and the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate.
Tech’s lineup was just about 80 percent set. Strafaci, Schniederjans, Ogletree and Norton played in every event before Strafaci exited to dabble in the world of the PGA Tour. Petefish and fellow senior Jacob Joiner took turns as the fifth scoring player, Petefish for the first two and Joiner for the last two in the fall.
So, after the semester break, Petefish went away, all the way to Australia, to play.
He didn’t play particularly well in Hawai’i to start the spring semester, finishing in a tie for 43rd as an individual, before rebounding to tie for seventh in the Puerto Rico Classic.
And then, after fighting his way back onto the travel squad, he won for the first time as a collegian last weekend.
“He kind of finished last on everything he played in the fall, and went to Australia, and played,” Heppler said. “You’ve got to knock the door down [to qualify]. Chris blew them away. He was a legit sixth man based on head to head [with teammates]. With a different focus and energy, he had to beat everybody, and he rolled them.
“You’ve got to knock the door down. He goes to Puerto Rico, and I think he was on the lead after two rounds. There was no more pressure [Sunday] than those [qualifying] rounds. He bowed up and knocked the stupid door down. He just blew their doors off.”
Petefish had help, to be sure. The Jackets won in Myrtle Beach with a group effort.
Norton went 70-72-69=211 to tie for second, and Ogletree rallied from a second-round 76 that did not count to shoot a 69 on Sunday, including an ace on the 17th hole. That helped pump Tech’s lead to four over Texas A&M. They won by five, and Ogletree tied for 15th.
All three rounds by Petefish and Norton counted in Tech’s score, and Schniederjans, Ogletree and Tyler Joiner each contributed two counting scores over three rounds.
Joiner made the travel team by winning the team qualifier the week before the tournament. That was his first time as a counting member of the team, as the first six tournaments of the season were populated by Norton, Strafaci, Ogletree, Schniederjans, Petefish and his brother Jacob Joiner.
And on top of that, Strafaci was excused from the team to play the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship in Florida with an exemption awarded for his win last spring in the Valspar Collegiate.
And still, Tech won, beating one of the two teams -- in addition to Oklahoma State -- that the sport’s pundits believe are sublime this year.
As Strafaci missed the cut at the Valspar, his teammates -- especially Petefish -- bucked up.
A clear head helped.
“I think most people play better when they don’t think as much,” he said. “If you’re throwing darts, or a ball, you’re usually not thinking about what you’re doing. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with my swing and technique. I can only control what I can control. Coach would say, you can’t go out there and defend your opponent.”
“I guess it just shows how good our team is, and I know Ty wanted to play a little better. We beat Texas A&M by five shots, and we had Tyler off at a PGA event. I guess it just shows how much talent we have.”