By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
- As they rolled back into Atlanta Tuesday afternoon, Georgia Tech’s golfers basked in the shared glows of success and the understanding of what it takes to score it, and nobody was getting it better than Jacob Joiner.
There, in the car ahead of head coach Bruce Heppler, a certain senior from Leesburg, Ga., smiled broadly mere months after practically trading his sticks for basketball and music just to escape the madness of the little, white, dimpled ball.
Joiner’s seen some serious life while at Tech, and there’s a good chance he’d plop the Yellow Jackets’ eight-stroke win in the Franklin American Mortgage Collegiate in College Grove, Tenn., high on his list of college moments – even though he won a tournament as a sophomore and finished third at the FAMC.
With Tech’s two wins and a second-place showing in three events, Joiner said the Jackets have a shared feeling that, “We’ve got a really good team, and I think that everyone on this team is in it for the same reason: to win as a team.”
Tech won its first tournament, the Carpet Capital Collegiate, by beating No. 3 Alabama in a playoff, and finished second in the next, the Maui Jim Invitational.
The Jackets are ranked No. 6 nationally by Sagarin/Golfweek and the Golf Coaches Association of America, are 8-1 against top 25 squads and 36-1 overall after falling only to Maui Jim host No. 23 Arizona State by a stroke.
After Tech shot a 12-under par 852 to pace a field of 12 teams in Tennessee on the strength of borderline sublime second and third rounds, Joiner said the Jackets are awash in communal belief.
“We’ve got a really good team this year,” he said, “and I think that everyone on this team is in it for the same reason: to win as a team.”
The word “team” keeps coming up, and Heppler relishes that, yet this is a rare instance where the singular tale of Joiner leads the pack for his perseverance.
He didn’t win the FAMC, like when he captured the Carpet Capital Collegiate to open a sophomore season in which he added five more top-20 finishes, yet Joiner not only played – as a junior he did not once make Tech’s travel team – but finished ahead of 65 of 67 other golfers.
“He played extremely well,” Heppler said. “He was playing in the last group ... and bogeys the first two holes. On the fourth, he hits driver eight feet from the hole.”
Joiner’s four-under-par 212 led the Jackets, who all finished tied for 17th or better, and felt so good and redemptive for a young man who barely missed making Tech’s travel team for the fall’s first two tournaments that golf is his buddy again.
Last spring, he hated the game.
Jacob probably wouldn’t use that word, but as a swing change in the summer of 2016 draped his 2016-17 game like a lead blanket, he bailed on golf.
Where he played a smidge of hoops on his own time as a freshman – when he started five events for Tech’s eventual ACC championship team – and as a sophomore, the Campus Recreation Center last spring became a haven before Joiner returned to south Georgia upon semester’s end.
He first had to get away from golf, and started hooping about three times a week.
“Spring semester, once I figured out I wasn’t going to play in the postseason, I got really down on myself, stopped working as hard,” Joiner recalled. “I played a lot of basketball, and at the end of that when I went back home, I started playing music at church. I play guitar and sing ... just in a band.
“I just needed something different to do ... It was good to just get out there and ... get my mind off golf and school.”
It wouldn’t be right to say that Joiner landed in a deep, dark place last spring, but maybe that he felt like he was on an amusement park ride like the one where you stand against a wall, the thing starts spinning and the floor drops out as centrifugal force plasters you against the wall.
Joiner was trapped by the device that he chose, by the decision in the summer of 2016 to change his swing.
Good thing that last spring teammates helped him get back on line.
First, “in talking with James Clark and Vince Whaley, James was like, ‘Dude, you just need to get back to your game and do what you do,’” Joiner remembered. “I tried to change my grip, and I tried to change my swing to something I thought would be good. It didn’t pan out the way the way that I thought.”
Sophomore Luke Schniederjans referred Joiner to Shaun Koch.
With a last name that is pronounced like “coach,” the Country Club of the South teaching professional helped Jacob find his way back from that disastrous swing change beginning in the spring.
Joiner’s once again playing like he can.
He tied for 22nd at the Maui Jim Invitational as an individual.
Beyond straightening out his swing, Joiner’s not golf gambling as much.
“I’m definitely playing not more conservative but more consistent, not going 100 percent all the time,” he said. “When you’re not feeling as confident, play safe ... get it on the green.”
Tech did a fine job of that in Tennessee over the final two rounds.
Resting in third place after a sketchy first round where Heppler wasn’t sure if his golfers brought their thinking caps while shooting a nine-over-par 297, the Jackets became comfortable. Very comfortable.
Maybe it was about spending time with Middle Tennessee State head coach and tournament host Brennan Webb, an assistant at Tech from 2012-14.
“They love them some Webb, I’m not sure why,” Heppler said with a chuckle. “He was around in their recruiting process, and he likes them and they like him. There was a lot of gigging going on. He likes these guys and roots for them, and pulls for them. There was a dinner one night.”
Upon setting their spikes after that first round, the Jackets strafed the field.
They shot a 12-under-par 276 Monday – by six strokes the best round of the tournament for any other team in the tournament – and whittled a 10-stroke deficit to Ole Miss down to one shot.
On Tuesday, they shot 279, which was the second-best round of the tournament by three strokes.
“Maybe we tried too hard,” Heppler said of the first round. “Maybe we were a little too keyed up. I don’t know; I’m not inside their heads. When you start realizing what your potential is, the hardest round to play is the first one.”
It’s a good sign in college golf when every one of your swingers contributes.
Strafaci went into the FAMC in Tech’s No. 1 slot, and bombed a 78 that did not count. Ogletree opened 75-77, and didn’t count in Monday’s second round.
Strafaci closed 71-70 to tie for 13th, and Ogletree led the Jackets on the final day with a bogey-free 68 as Joiner and Strafaci shot 70s and freshman Noah Norton wrapped up with rounds of 68-71 to tie Schniederjans for seventh place at 1-under 215. Luke’s 74 did not count.
“It’s one thing when you’re trying to coach and you say, ‘Get over your own personal disappointment and do something in the last two [rounds],’” Heppler said. “Once it starts happening, it’s more real than just some story or some reference to what can be. They realize this team stuff is really cool.”
Joiner will sign on to that.
Last spring, he changed his swing and fully embraced his coach’s words.
“I talked to my coach (Heppler) before I went home, and he said you’ve got one year to decide if you want to do this for a living,” Jacob recalled. “He said, ‘Life’s coming for you.’”
Now, it’s all about the team, playing with brains instead of bravado, and pushing the unit rather than himself because, Joiner said, “We really have a good team that’s in it for each other.”