#TGW: Feeling Good
Golf team believes things are coming together just in time for NCAA Championships
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
- There's nothing like the unknown of the postseason.
It's the time when players need to respond to unforeseeable challenges and situations.
When great players rise up and do great things when it matters most, and ordinary players rise up to the status of unexpected heroes. In college sports, there's the added layer of finality for seniors making their last charge to glory.
Georgia Tech's golf team combines the best of all those story lines as it heads into this weekend's NCAA Championship finals, which begin Friday at a venue ironically named The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.
The 12th-ranked Yellow Jackets tee off against No. 7 Stanford and No. 10 Oklahoma, the winner of the San Diego Regional in which Tech appeared two weeks ago, at 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8:10 a.m. Saturday. About the only time they'll used the word concession is when talking about the course.
For starters, there's the compelling final collegiate chapter of the Ollie Schniederjans-Anders Albertson Era. They're two of the most decorated players in program history -- Schniederjans a two-time ACC Player of the Year and world No. 1 amateur player last summer and through the fall, Albertson only the 16th player in conference history to be All-ACC first team all four years, and the 2015 Byron Nelson Award winner.
The Jackets will depend on the duo to set the standard. It's harder to find a more reliable teammate twosome upon which to lean, even in the Jackets' storied program.
"You can look at Bryce [Molder] and "Kooch" (Matt Kuchar) and that's pretty devastating over a three-year period with National Players of the Year and stuff, but you look at overall scoring average for a career, that's two and three in history," said head coach Bruce Heppler, who has brought Georgia Tech to the NCAA Tournament every year since 1998 and to match play in the championship four of the last five years. "If you step back, now we're going to talk [David] Duval, [Stewart] Cink, [Matt] Kuchar, [Bryce] Molder, [Cameron] Tringale, [Nicholas] Thompson, [Chan] Song, [Roberto] Castro and think there's two of your best three right there. That says a lot for what they've accomplished, for sure. They're local kids; Cobb County's been pretty good to the Yellow Jackets."
The seniors have been out front and have been especially instrumental in Tech's successfully replacing three-fifths of last year's starting traveling squad with a pair of freshmen (Chris Petefish, a Danville, Calif., native, and James Clark, from Columbus, Ga.) and a sophomore (Vincent Whaley, from McKinney, Texas). Whaley came into 2015 having three tournaments of college experience from his freshman year. Together, the group is on the verge of doing something great -- something else great, actually.
They've already taken home the program's eighth ACC Championship in 10 years, winning in a playoff -- albeit a more dramatic and a less-resounding fashion than in years past -- then, stared down elimination on day 3 of the NCAA regional, falling out of the top five before roaring home over the final six holes to finish third and advance.
"I think the fact that they've won these events, I think they think they can play well, and from my observations, the way we're playing right now, it's as good as we've played all year," said Heppler. "So if we do what we're supposed to, get a break or two, hopefully we'll get a chance to play in the match play again on Monday."
"Obviously [our goal is] to win. We don't go for second," said Albertson. "Our team is different than last year. We were a lot older. But just because the names on the bag change the big one doesn't. Expectations for our program are to compete at the highest level. Ollie and I are going to have to play well for us to do that. We understand that but the three guys behind us are capable of coming in with a low number, so that's a good feeling to have."
The team isn't alone in feeling good about the Jackets. The media is on board as well, specifically former PGA Pros and Golf Channel analysts Lanny Wadkins and Charlie Rymer.
"They've got two outstanding players, and two players can really take you a long way, especially in medal play," said Wadkins, who picked the Jackets as one of two teams to survive the 54-hole cut and make it to Monday's match-play.
"I've got to throw the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in there," added Rymer. "They are absolutely due to win their first NCAA championship. When you look at the number of Tour players that Georgia Tech has put out and the fact that four times now they've been runner up in the NCAAs, it's one of those things where destiny at some point is going to tap on Georgia Tech's shoulders and say, `Hey, guys, it's your time.' Bruce Heppler has done an amazing job and it's just shocking to me that he hasn't won NCAAs."
Assistant coach Brennan Webb also could be a wild card according to Rymer.
"Brennan has played the golf course about 25 times, so that experience that he has at the golf course, I know he's been feeding all that info into the guys," he said. "You've just got a feeling it might be Georgia Tech's year, and certainly they're due."
The Jackets have also made their own destiny with gritty play and steely nerves, especially later rounds of tournaments. The later it gets and greater the pressure the more confident they seem to get.
In San Diego, the Jackets responded to the threat of falling out of a qualifying spot by going bird hunting. Schniederjans birdied four of his last six holes, Albertson had three birdies (the pair each went for 70 the final day), Clark birdied three of his final seven holes, and Whaley parred 10 straight holes.
"They've clutched it up and the young guys are learning how to play well when they're nervous," said Heppler. "The first one, there's a reason for that. It's when you know you have a chance, and you get pretty amped up about it. Once you start playing well in a tournament, momentum almost can carry you all the way through the end. So the first round is big, again, we'll just try as hard as we can to get them relaxed, don't make a big deal out of it. It's just another day, but they know."
Of course, Heppler knows a big weekend from his senior dynamic duo is a big deal, but he's confident he'll get that and, from there, believes the youngsters, will continue to take their cue and step up.
"These little rallies we've had, obviously [Schniederjans and Albertson] have been a big part of it, but it's not just them," Heppler said. "Two guys can't get it done. Look at the ACC. Anders doubles 17 but Clark birdies 17, Petefish birdies 18, Vince birdies the two holes in the playoff. So you just keep trying to tell them that it's good enough. The hardest part for a young guy is to feel like, `I'm good enough.' They'll always worry, `Can I do this? Can I do this?' Hopefully they've learned that they can and they've done a really, really nice job for stepping in there with guys who haven't played at all. We've won four times and won the Conference again, when we weren't supposed to, I guess. So I'm very happy."
Petefish, who ranked third on the team with a stroke average of 72.00 (Whaley's 73.04 and Clark's 73.33 aren't far behind him) likes where he is and believes the team learned a lot from the San Diego Regional.
"That was like the first time really that our season was on the line. So I think it was good for everyone," he said. "The rest of the team did an unbelievable job of closing down the stretch. I think we're in a good position for the finals. I don't think we really need to do anything different than what we've been doing all year. So I feel pretty good."
So is Schniederjans, who admitted that he was getting stretched in too many directions at the start of the season and lost some focus. He is back to where he wants to be and believes the team is as well.
"The team is the best place it's been at. So I think we have a chance to make a run, and it's going to be exciting and fun," he said. "We're all together more. We're feeding off each other. Mentally, that's the most important thing. I think I'm in a good place there. I can definitely do some damage."
"He's been as good the last two months as he's been since he's been here as far as being engaged in what we're doing and what's important," said Heppler. "I think he's let the individual stuff go. He just wants to win as a team. He's engaged in what they're doing. For those young guys, for him to help them is a big deal."
All that's left is the ending. Heppler hopes there Schniederjans and close friend Albertson can write a happy one for themselves and their team.
"It's going to end the way it started," he said, "with the two of them trying to lead us to do something pretty special."
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