Tough schedule may help Tech golf team

A loaded schedule has been a two-edged sword for the Georgia Tech golf team. It has handed the Yellow Jackets a bruised record and a No. 17 regular-season ranking, which is somewhat lower than usual. It has also produced a team capable of contending for the NCAA Championship this week in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“If you don’t follow college golf, finishing sixth or seventh doesn’t look very good,” said Tech coach Bruce Heppler. “But we’re playing the best people every time and I think it helps you figure out where you are.”

Tech has played 24 of the 25 teams in the national rankings and has compiled a 25-28-1 record against them. At times they’ve taken their lumps; Tech is 1-4 against No. 1 Oklahoma State, 0-2 against No. 2 Texas A&M, and 0-1 against both No. 3 Washington and No. 4 Stanford.

The Yellow Jackets have responded by playing  their best golf at the end of the season. They won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and 10 days ago  finished third in the NCAA Southeast Regional at Capital City's Crabapple Course. They take a lot of momentum into the national championship tournament, which begins Tuesday at The Honors Course outside Chattanooga. Georgia Tech is seeded 14th.

“We play a schedule that can make you look pretty bad at times," Heppler said. "We’ve always set the bar really high, so (team members) know what they have to do. That’s why they came to our school; they didn’t come here to be ranked eighth or win seven regular-season tournaments. If we wanted to be 37-1, we could do that. We could take them places where they could win and win and win, but when you do that you’re fooling yourself.”

In the regional, Tech was nearly able to chase down Oklahoma State and Clemson by shooting the best final round of the tournament. Four of the five Yellow Jackets shot 68 on a very difficult golf course.

“We played 54 holes with the team (Oklahoma State) that’s arguably played better than anybody in college golf this year, and we almost got them,” Heppler said.

This Tech team is unlike many of Heppler’s former championship contenders. While previous rosters included future professionals like Matt Kuchar, Bryce Molder, Troy Matteson and Cameron Tringale, this Tech squad doesn't depend on one or two individuals. It’s good because of the sum of its parts.

Junior John-Tyler Griffin has been Tech’s most consistent player all season and has six top-10s, including a tie for third at the Southeast Regional. Sophomore James White has three top-10s and has produced the team’s lowest scores in the spring. Senior Chesson Hadley, an All-American as a sophomore, won the ACC and tied for eighth at the regional. Juniors Kyle Scott and Paul Haley were both among the top 15 at the ACC tournament.

“Knowing they can play together and win builds confidence in each other,” Heppler said. “I tell them to keep playing and don’t worry about if you have a bad hole. You’ve got to play 54 holes. So what if you had a bad hole. It’s just a hole and you’ll play a million of them in your lifetime. Just focus on the task at hand and that’s the shot in front of you.”

A 30-team field, which also includes Augusta State and Georgia Southern, will play 54 holes Tuesday through Thursday to determine an individual winner and the eight teams that will qualify for the finals. The eight finalists will compete head-to-head in single-elimination match play on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to determine a team champion. Texas A&M won the title in 2009.

NCAA GOLF

When: Tuesday-Sunday

Where: The Honors Course, outside Chattanooga, Tenn.

Georgia teams: Augusta State (No. 9 seed), Georgia Tech (No. 14 seed), Georgia Southern (No. 30 seed)

Scoring: www.golfstat.com