Almost four years ago, after Georgia State coach Joe Inman already agreed to let Tyler Gruca walk on to the golf team, he watched his new player putt for the first time.
With floppy wrists and an aim about 30-degrees off, Gruca rolled a few balls. Inman thought he was joking.
“Quit messing around, show me your real stroke,” Inman recalls saying.
Gruca looked up and said in perhaps one of the worst golf-related job-interview responses ever:
“I have never had under 30 putts in a round, in my life.”
Flash forward to last week’s NCAA regional in San Antonio and Gruca has a better grip on the flat stick. Rolling in what Inman estimated was 100 feet of putts on the last nine holes, Gruca shot a 66 on Friday to help the Panthers eventually finish second on Saturday. That was good enough to push the team to the NCAA Championship, which will begin Friday at Prairie Dunes in Kansas.
“Normally, I don’t putt great,” said Gruca, who has a stroke average of 73.94 this year. “I just try to hit a lot of greens. If I can hit 15, 16 greens, I can shoot around even. If I play well, I can do that sometimes.”
Gruca wasn’t the best putter because he really didn’t play the game regularly until moving from Buffalo to Alpharetta when he was 14 years old. He then began to play with a group of friends at courses in the area. He was good enough to make Milton High’s team, but didn’t compete in many junior tournaments, a reason he wasn’t recruited to play golf in college. Plus, he had never broken par, which is hard to do when you can’t crack 30 putts.
But Gruca knew he wanted to keep playing and he knew he wanted to stay in or near Atlanta because he likes everything the city offers.
After Inman agreed to let him walk-on, Gruca worked on improving his putting. To fix his stroke, Inman got him a longer putter and taught him to rock his shoulders instead of slapping at the ball like it was a hockey puck. To fix his aim, Inman also taught him how to spot putt, which is a method of aiming at something a few feet away, instead of using the hole as a target.
Gruca played in the team’s first tournament that year as a freshman and hasn’t missed one since.
“He’s so much better than he was,” Inman said.
Of course, he’s not great. Gruca is so accurate in the rest of his game, Inman said he if could consistently putt well he would shoot in the low 60s. For example, his 66 in San Antonio should have been a 63 if not for several missed but make-able putts.
But that potential, coupled with the depth of his squad, is why Inman likes his team’s chances at the NCAA tournament. The Panthers have won four tournaments this year but haven’t had a single player finish as medalist.
“This year I feel like we are all on an even playing field,” Gruca said. “I don’t think we care who plays No. 1 or who ends up there. If someone fulfills the role it’s all taken care of.”
The Panthers advanced out of San Antonio even though No. 1 player J.J. Grey struggled so badly his score didn’t count on two of the three days. The third day he still posted the team’s highest score. Inman likes his teams chances if Grey can rebound.
“If J.J. has a good tournament in Kansas, we can be dangerous,” he said.
Unlike the course in San Antonio, the team has some familiarity with Prairie Dunes. Inman played the course when it hosted the U.S. Senior Open. He shot 12 over and finished t-47th.
He said it’s much different than the Capital City’s Crabapple Course that hosted last year’s NCAA Championship. It will be much windier and trouble is everywhere, which will necessitate players hitting 3-woods or driving irons off the tees. The players that are accurate are the players that will do well.
“A player that is solid off the tee and can hit it where he wants to hit and can keep it in play, a Tyler Gruca-type player,” Inman said.