#TGW: A Numbers Game

Head Coach Bruce Heppler is focusing on analytics to help the Yellow Jackets improve.
Dec. 9, 2015

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

With final exams up, Georgia Tech golfers are studying and they’re not alone within the program. Head coach Bruce Heppler is in review mode, too, and giving the Yellow Jackets numbers to crunch with a trend toward analytics.

The Yellow Jackets were erratic in the fall with a relatively inexperienced roster, finishing with an annoying outing – 10th place in the Kiawah (S.C.) Classic.

After their most disappointing round, an 11-over par 299, the third round – the last of the season – was washed out by foul weather. The sour taste was not.

With that, the Jackets tripped into their offseason with a feeling of, “Yeck,” as Heppler said. Indeed, Tech slipped from No. 9 to No. 26 in the Golfweek rankings – very unfamiliar territory.

Tech has won eight of the past 10 ACC titles and routinely challenges on a national level, yet there are six ACC teams ranked ahead of the Jackets.

So in the middle of an unusual season where the team for the first time in years does not have a returning All-ACC player, they’re taking unusual approaches.

Where Heppler and former assistants in the past made some statistical analysis available to players if they wanted to use it to assess their games, he’s mandating it now.

Good thing this is right up the alley of new assistant coach Jeff Pierce, an established instructor who came to Tech Oct. 30 armed with analytics.

“My new assistant, who’s very much into statistics, has had a several-hour meeting with each guy and gone through what he sees from the last year-and-a-half of information that they’ve inputted,” Heppler said. “We’ve tried to explain to them the importance of doing that.

“He’s used it a lot with his Tour players, and that’s how they look at trying to get better. He actually led us, even when he was not working here, to a guy who does stuff for the European Ryder Cup team . . . Right now, it’s not optional. And I think with this crew it’s not going to be.”

In reviewing the fall, Pierce saw data all over the place.

Sophomore Jacob Joiner won the first tournament of the fall with a four-under par 212 at the Carpet Capital Collegiate near Dalton, yet the Jackets by round went from first place to third to fifth.

The next time out, junior Vincent Whaley tied for third with a four-under par 209 in the DICK’S Sporting Goods Challenge near Nashville, but Tech finished seventh with a 10-over par 294 in the final round. His 79 counted on the final day because sophomore James Clark shot 81. Then, the Jackets fell to Florida in match play. Joiner tied for 55th out of 60.

After that, Heppler said, “Our guys have to learn how to deal with adversity and disappointment.”

At the United States Collegiate Championship at the Golf Club of Georgia, the Jackets were solid in the first and third rounds with scores of 286 and a 282 – tied for second-best round of the entire tournament.

A second-round score of 299 hurt, but after the Jackets finished fifth in perhaps the strongest field the sport will see before the postseason, there was cause for optimism.

Four golfers – Joiner (69), Whaley (71), Clark (71) and sophomore Chris Petefish (71) were under par on that final day, prompting the coach to say, “We beat some really good teams here, and maybe our young guys start to think they can do this.”

That didn’t happen.

In the fall finale, Whaley’s 79 counted in the first round because sophomore Michael Pisciotta carded an 83. The second round was dreadful, as only Joiner matched or bettered par with a one-under 71 on the way to a 12th-place tie. Tech’s other counting scores were 73 (Whaley), 77 (Clark) and 78 (Pisciotta or Petefish).

Equipment was not the issue at Kiawah.

That was a softer field than Tech typically plays.

“Before that round, we were ranked ninth with a whole new team,” Heppler said. “We played that, didn’t get to finish and because we were playing against average competition, the computers hated it and we got drilled in the rankings.

“I don’t think they took that tournament serious. We’ve have that conversation . . . But that may be a good thing. Maybe we all learned something there.”

Heppler, Pierce and Tech’s youngish players have had multiple chats.

“Some of them have looked at putting, and talked about the philosophy in putting, or the fundamentals in putting [in addition to the use of analytics],” the head coach said. “You finally get some real, individual analysis of their game. Hopefully, they’ll go home and learn something about that over break.

“Or, it may be just a meeting about their attitude and preparation, or where they’re at in their life. It takes time. You have to talk. The conversations could be more about their lives, or school because if you’re not at peace with the school, then there’s no way . . . that you can play the way that you want to play.

“There’s a myriad of aspects that you can discuss at this time of year from a mentoring standpoint. You stop for 10 weeks, and then you start again. There’s a chance in here to maybe change the course of your year and figure out aspects of their life and game.”

Pierce, 28, came to Tech after serving last summer as the director of instruction at Elk River Golf Club in Banner Elk, N.C., and three years as the senior instructor at Butch Harmon’s Floridian, a golf learning center in Palm City, Fla. He’s worked with several professionals, including recent Tech graduate Anders Albertson.

He’s fairly big into analytics, which are largely new to some players.

If the Jackets, who are 12-15-1 vs. top 25 competition, are to match up with No. 3 Wake Forest (21-3-1), No. 4 Florida State (18-8), No. 6 North Carolina (4-11-1), No. 13 Clemson (15-16-1), No. 14 Duke (11-9-1) and No. 20 Virginia (9-11-1) in the ACC, they’re going to need greater consistency.

In pursuit of that, Heppler is making golf more of a numbers game.

“It may just be an equipment issue. It could be the club is wrong, the loft is wrong,” he said of how analytics might help. “James Clark, if you look at the differences in yardage between his four iron and three iron, the gaps are huge. He’s going up 25 yards. Is that from trying to hit it too hard with longer clubs? Or is the shaft wrong, the loft wrong?

“You’ve heard Jordan Spieth say he’s looked at his proximity on his wedges and, ‘My nine iron and eight iron are terrible. My proximity to the hole is out of whack with everything else so I’m going to look at that club.’ “

For some players, analytic immersion is less comfortable. For now, it is not optional. Heppler wants more out of his players.

“There’s not an All-ACC performer on our team, let alone an All-American, so you would hope they would be hungry for that, trying to devise ways,” the head coach said. “But maybe the problem is they saw Ollie [Schniederjans] do it without doing that, or watched Anders do it without that.

“Not everybody is perfect when you recruit them. Not everybody has made all the right choices from the day they got here. There has to be some lead, some pushing and prodding until somebody catches the vision of what we do. Sometimes, you talk them into it. Sometimes, greatness is maturity as well, not all focus and ambition.”