#TGW: Nervous Ending
Georgia Tech won this event for the second straight year
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
There was a lot of good news for Georgia Tech's golfers last weekend, when the 15th-ranked Yellow Jackets won Ohio State's Robert Kepler Intercollegiate by 16 strokes with Vincent Whaley and Albertson sharing medalist honors. But man, did Bruce Heppler sweat that one out, and he wasn't even the injured Jacket.
Freshman Chris Petefish was hit in the neck by an errant golf shot early Saturday, and withdrew from the first and second rounds before playing Sunday -- and counting -- toward the Jackets' four-under par 848 score.
For the first time in 20 years as Tech's head coach, Heppler went with just four players. That made the Jackets' nearly wire-to-wire win more nerve-wracking than if his squad were trying to rally from behind.
Whaley, Albertson, Ollie Schniederjans and James Clark all counted for Saturday's first and second rounds because they had to. Every team in the 14-squad field counted four low scorers from among its five golfers.
That left no margin for error among the swinging quartet on Saturday, and heaped a couple harrowing visits to the scorer's tent upon Heppler.
If any Jacket signed an incorrect scorecard, he would have been disqualified and then by virtue of not having four scoring golfers, Tech would have been DQed. That would've robbed the Jackets of their third win of the season, and Heppler of his 46th as head coach.
"I've never had anybody hurt, or have to pull out," he said. "The only time I got more nervous was is in the scoring tent. If one of the four score cards get messed up, then you're out of the tournament. It was the nervousness of twice having to make sure every single score was right."
Actually, there was plenty to be uptight about when Petefish was pegged.
As the Jackets began to pull away from SMU (864) and No. 38 Ohio State (868) on OSU's Scarlet Course, an errant shot from the adjacent Gray Course caught Petefish.
He heard, "Fore!" turned and got a hand up to partially deflect the ball. That cost him part of a fingernail, yet may have expedited his return the next day to shoot at 74 as Whaley and Albertson carded 70s and Schniederjans a 73.
Heppler was not happy that the adjacent course was open to the public.
"The two courses are side by side, and he had just teed off," Heppler said. "It was probably some 34-handicapper who duck-hooked a ball. It was lucky; it could have been worse."
Tech's final tournament before the ACC Championships April 24-26 at the Old North State Club in London, N.C., could not have gone a whole lot better.
Whaley and Albertson each fired rounds of 71-67-70=208 to tie atop the leader board at five-under par for their first and second career wins, respectively. Schniederjans went 68-69-73=210 to tie for third. Clark's 74-75-75=224 was good for a 37th-place tie among 74 golfers.
Albertson's second career title (including the 2013 ACC championship) was more of the same. The senior has had solid spring in finishing fourth, tying for 11th, tying for fourth, tying for 11th, and tying for eighth in the Jackets' five previous "spring" tournaments.
He's averaged 69.7 strokes over Tech's 18 rounds this semester, better than a career stroke average (71.4) that is third lowest in school history.
Albertson was just as pleased with the way the Jackets are playing overall as with his work. Tech a week earlier tied No. 27 Alabama for second place behind No. 6 and host Vanderbilt in the Mason Rudolph Championship.
"It's our goal when we come here to win," he said after the Jackets won Kepler for the second straight year. "We accomplished what we set out to . . . one through five, I think we're playing well. I'm really happy with the event.
"I'm happy with Vince, and the improvement he's made. Ollie's been playing well for the last year and a half; he's going to be good in the postseason. I'm happy with my game, and the two freshmen are getting comfortable."
Whaley's become cozier on the greens, and was tickled with his first collegiate title. His parents and grandfather watched Saturday's action after traveling from McKinney, Texas, to pick up his sister in nearby Kentucky on spring break.
After making the travel team for just one fall event, when only one of his scores counted as the Jackets won the DICK'S Challenge Cup, his last 11 rounds have counted for Tech.
He's taken advice to calm down.
"I had a talk with coach Heppler; I had a lot of ups and downs emotionally. A lot of it is emphasis on my attitude. I've also talked to Anders a little bit about things he does to stay level-headed," he said. "It sounds silly, but it's just one shot at a time and not dwelling on the past.
"I would say the majority of the improvement is mental, and keeping it simple."
Whaley's best work came on par 4s, where he was No. 2 in the field at 3-under par with an average of 3.91. Whaley also tied for third tied on par 3s with a 2.83-stroke average -- behind Schniederjans' 2.75 and ahead of Albertson's 2.92.
Albertson was No. 1 on par 5s, averaging 4.33 while playing them in six-under par, and was second in the field with 12 birdies overall. Whaley and Schniederjans tied for fifth with 10.
Mechanical adjustments have helped Whaley, too, as he has studied former Jacket Matt Kuchar. With that information, he's tightened up his putting form.
"I've watched a lot of videos and read a lot about how Matt putts . . . not necessary how he anchors, but keeps connected to the body," he explained. "It's more shoulder swing. Before the winter break . . . I was a little farther away from the ball. My arms weren't as close and I was more handsy. I wasn't as consistent."
Strange as it was for Petefish to go down, Whaley's peace of mind came into play. He learned of his teammate's injury while in the sixth fairway, and heard on the 12th that Petefish was not playing. He parred Nos. 6, 7, 8 and 9, and birdied 12 on the way to an even-par 71 in Saturday's first round.
In consecutive weeks, he's put together his best collegiate finishes, including an 11th-place finish at Mason Rudolph.
"It was right in front of me. I didn't know what happened. They called my coach (assistant Brennan Webb) over, and I saw him start running," Whaley recalled. "I saw Petey laying on the ground. That's really strange. Counting just four, you always try to keep your wits. You want to give your team the best chance to win."
Heppler was not surprised by Whaley or Albertson.
"Vince had some nice rounds in the fall, some where he putted poorly or he'd have finished in the top 15," the coach said. "He's come a long way and works hard. He should have as much confidence as anybody. Since Hawai'i [the first spring event], Anders has played as well as anybody in the country."
Albertson, Schniederjans and Whaley seem like locks for the ACCs, where Tech will try to defend its title and win the conference crown for the eighth time in 10 years, and for the sixth time in seven.
Petefish will be among candidates to round out the Jackets' travel squad.
"He said he had a hard time concentrating over putts [Sunday]," Heppler said. "Certainly, it was a scary situation. He played the back at even par, and his score counted. It's good to win right before going to ACCs."