Georgia Tech confident heading into 2015 ACC Championship
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Before Georgia Tech even teed off Friday at the ACC Championships, the Yellow Jackets felt much better about their chances of repeating as conference golf champions than they if they had to take stock of their chances a few weeks ago.
Their confidence may be more attributable to how they feel than the way they're playing, although they're playing better partly because of how they feel.
This isn't standard, but the sight for younger players of senior teammates Ollie Schiederjans and Anders Albertson -- each a former ACC champion -- jumping the rails and then re-tracking has galvanized the 11th-ranked Yellow Jackets.
As sophomore Vincent Whaley and freshmen Chris Petefish and James Clark left campus with Schniederjans and Albertson for the Old North State Club in New London, N.C., they carried the momentum of success and the knowledge that Tech's pace setters are back on line.
A 16-stroke win a week earlier at the Robert Kepler Intercollegiate at Ohio State, where Albertson and Whaley tied for medalist honors and Schniederjans finished one stroke back in third, and tying for second behind host Vanderbilt in the Mason Rudolph April 3-5 serve as physical evidence of Tech's abilities.
Mental matters might mean more.
The Jackets have re-bonded after Schniederjans spent considerable time away from the team early in the semester while playing two pro events, and then was crooked as a soft noodle when he returned.
An early meeting with head coach Bruce Heppler the morning after Schniederjans went 75-73-82-230= to finish tied for 63rd place at the Valspar Collegiate March 23-24 helped the soon-to-graduate senior re-track, and he in turn has helped the young Jackets find grooves.
"The smile's back, he's engaged, I think he realizes that some of the things that he promised himself and us that he was going to do as far as helping the younger guys and being around and being a leader, he didn't do a whole lot of that," Heppler explained before the Jackets left Atlanta.
"Our best event in the fall was Hawaii, and I'll never forget the week before we left he took Petefish and [Jacob] Joiner and played them best ball every night out at the Golf Club until dark. That's the best Joiner has played, and Chris had a nice tournament. That's what you need [seniors] to do."
Schniederjans, who a year ago put together one of the greatest stretch runs by a Tech golfer ever with a win at the ACCs, popped the seal on the Jackets' envelope as he played in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January, and especially when he played in the PGA's Valspar Championship March 12-15 in Florida.
There were other distractions, too, as he probed prospects for a pro golf career and personal matters came about. He's back to mentoring and playing like he can.
"It's really been hard to just stay in the present. That's what I need to do. I need to be focused on what I can accomplish. I want to leave [Tech] feeling like I did everything I could," Ollie said. "A lot matters here at the end.
"Everything was coming down on me at the same time mentally. I wasn't surprised with how I played [at the Valspar Collegiate]. The place I was personally and mentally . . . I was ready to blow up. Frustration. Personal issues came on me at the same time."
Even as Schniederjans was blowing up and the Jackets finished 10th out of 13 teams at the Valspar, Albertson rolled. His rebound began last fall.
He nearly finished last at the U.S. Collegiate Championship at the Golf Club of Georgia, which is one of Tech's two home courses.
Rounds of 79-82-73=234 left him tied for 76th out of 79.
As with Schniederjans months later, Albertson's struggle was not all about golf.
A fervently committed young man who has earned numerous academic honors, an ACC post-graduate scholarship and who recently captured the Byron Nelson Award, Albertson was further laid low by perhaps his greatest asset -- his heart.
For reasons unknown, he came down with pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac around the heart, shortly after U.S.C.C.
An uneven autumn, in which Albertson was 25-over par through four events became worse. "That was the worst event of my life, and then I could hardly move, couldn't do anything physical," he said.
Most seasons, the U.S.C.C. concludes the fall slate, but in a scheduling twist drawn from Heppler's willingness to let Schniederjans play in Abu Dhabi in January, the Jackets played one extra fall tournament, in Hawai'i, and subtracted their usual January trip to The Islands to start the spring.
Albertson, who has made the travel team for every event of his Tech career, was -- because of his poor performance at the U.S.C.C. -- had to qualify to keep his string intact.
"I couldn't practice, but I just decided [after receiving doctors' permission] to just go play," Albertson said. "Just go out there."
A horrible twist in physical and personal fate turned into a blessing. Albertson just played, abandoning the concept of over thinking.
The Jackets rolled by 15 strokes to the title at the Warrior Princeville Makai Invitational, and he finished fourth after firing 68-67-65=200.
Since the U.S.C.C., Albertson is 33-under par through 18 rounds in six events with finishes of fourth, tie-11, tie-4, tie-11, tie-8, and tie-1.
His record against other golfers through U.S.C.C. was 140-131 (.517). From then to now, it's 448-33 (.931).
He's averaged 69.67 strokes per round since that debacle at the Golf Club, and with four top-10 finishes and two 11ths in his last six events, he's stroking.
Letting go of attention to detail has served Albertson well.
"He's in a much better place now. I think his ball striking is as good as I've ever seen it," Heppler said. "Now that we've decided that we're OK, and not trying to be something we're not, he just swings with confidence and he's beating on it.
"It just goes to show . . . when you try to be somebody else, that's not when you hit it further. Also, his tendency is always to try too hard but I think he's realized that he's made too mistakes doing that."
The Jackets have a task in trying to win their sixth ACC title in seven years, and eighth in 10. Florida State is ranked No. 1, North Carolina No. 19, and nine of the 12 ACC teams are ranked in the top 50 by Golfstat.
But the Jackets are better equipped than a few weeks ago.
The resurgence of Albertson and the Heppler-Schniederjans confab look like reasons why. It helps that Tech has already won three times this season, and, in a way, it may help especially that Schniederjans tanked at the Valspar.
"A lot of [Ollie's absence] was because he's been asked to do other things: meetings, promotions, and [screening] agents, but I think he realized he was not what he hoped to be all the way around and he's jumped in with both feet," Heppler said.
"It created an opportunity for he and I to get together at about 5:50 the next morning [after Valspar] and talk about where we went wrong. It was a great chance to re-set."
Heppler acknowledged giving too much leeway to Schniederjans, and Ollie acknowledged running too hard and far with the longer leash.
"He's very mature, and if it had all been portrayed as he had done everything wrong, then that wouldn't have gone over very well because he's smart," the coach said. "It wasn't a fault-finding situation . . . we had a mutual agreement, and I think it's been great ever since.
"I told him that because of his passion and commitment that I afforded him more autonomy than anyone ever, and that autonomy allowed him to get away from it a little bit . . . We may not have had the opportunity to do that if he had not played so poorly."
Schniederjans is back on board.
"I kind of lost myself for a few months. My talk with coach was mostly about what I could do as far as what we could control and changing my mind set with the team," he said.
"[Heppler] kind of let me go this year and do my own thing. I pretty much did that other years, but we have younger guys and I'm not as close to the team so it's become more about too much about me and not enough about the team.
"You get in a funk, and . . . you forget what you're trying to do and about being a better person. I have two little brothers and I try to mentor them. I'm trying to take that side of myself and do that with the team a little more.
"I wasn't a good example for anyone this year. I've turned the corner, and I think things are heading to a good place."