Georgia Tech golf stumbles, but in playoff to survive cut

Georgia Tech golfer Noah Norton at the third round of the NCAA Championship May 30, 2021 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Tim Cowie/Georgia Tech Athletics)
Georgia Tech golfer Noah Norton at the third round of the NCAA Championship May 30, 2021 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Tim Cowie/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Tim Cowie

Credit: Tim Cowie

When his team’s round ended early Sunday afternoon at the NCAA golf championships, Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler knew that his team’s situation looked bleak.

After three rounds, the 30-team field cuts down to 15 for the fourth and final round of stroke play. After his team gave up 15 shots to par in its third round, Tech had dropped from a tie for 12th before the round to a tie for 24th at 32-over-par. As the 15 teams in the afternoon wave started their rounds, the Yellow Jackets were six strokes off the 15-team cut line, but needed at least nine teams to drop below them to be able to keep playing.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t think (our chances) were that good because there were a lot of teams (in front of Tech), and they’re good teams,” Heppler said Sunday night.

Heppler was speaking by phone from Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.,, where his team was back practicing. After a stressful afternoon of waiting, hoping and repeatedly refreshing the online scoreboard page, the Jackets found themselves in a playoff for the 15th spot with TCU, to be played Monday morning. Fortune had blessed the Jackets.

“I walked 22,000 steps and my fingers are more tired than my feet are,” Heppler said.

Tech actually was alone in 15th until TCU’s final player on the course, Aymeric Laussot, birdied the par-4 ninth hole to lower his team to 32-over and get into a tie with the Jackets.

The Jackets’ ride back to the course to practice for the playoff was a bit different than one from it a few hours earlier.

“We didn’t have to play the quiet game (on the way from the course),” Heppler said. “It kind of happened on its own. And then the ride back was very enthusiastic.”

Sunday was a grind for the Jackets. All five of Tech’s players shot over par, with the four scoring players playing the final three holes (Nos. 7-9) in a combined 7-over-par. Senior Noah Norton led the team Sunday with a 2-over 72 and for the tournament is in a tie for 34th at 5-over par. He was followed by a 73 from Bartley Forrester and a pair of 75′s from Connor Howe and Ben Smith. Freshman Christo Lamprecht, Tech’s No. 1 player, struggled to a 76.

After the round, all the Jackets could was hope that their competitors would also trip up. And one by one, they did.

At Grayhawk, the 18th hole is a 520-yard par-4 that normally plays as a par-4. There is water down the right side of the fairway and bunkers on the left, Heppler said, “so it’s a mess of a hole, and enough people made a mess of it.”

N.C. State, one of the teams ahead of the Jackets at the start of its day, played holes 16-18 in 6-over-par to finish at +36-over-par, four shots back of Tech and TCU.

Georgia was above the cut line as it approached the end of its round, but likewise struggled through its final three holes in 6-over-par to close at 33-over-par, just one shot back of Tech and TCU. Most improbably, the Bulldogs’ Davis Thompson, the second-ranked amateur player in the world, double-bogeyed the par-4 18th, where a par would have advanced the Bulldogs into the fourth round and at the same time knocked the Jackets out and a bogey would have put them into a three-team playoff for the last spot.

In the playoff, to start at 10:30 a.m. EST, Tech’s five players will pair up with TCU’s five on holes 14-18. Lamprecht, Tech’s No. 1, will be at 18, Norton, the No. 2 man, will be at 17, and so on.

The pairings will tee off at the same time, and the players’ scores from their respective holes will be added up, with the winner moving on to the fourth round.

“They’re excited about it,” Heppler said. “They were disappointed; they didn’t play as well as they could have, and now you’ve got a little bit of a reprieve. Everybody’s up and ready to go and play one more hole, and hopefully get 18 more.”

It’s the fourth playoff at an NCAA championship that Heppler has been involved in, two as an assistant coach at Oklahoma State and one at Tech. The Jackets lost that one, in 2000 when they and Oklahoma State were deadlocked after 72 holes. It’s the closest that Tech, a golf powerhouse since the mid-1980′s, has come to a national title.

“Play one more hole, and hopefully get 18 more,” Heppler said.

Should the Jackets win, they’ll have another challenge awaiting them. Three teams — Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and North Carolina — are at the eight-team cut line, tied for sixth at 13-over-par, 19 strokes ahead of the Jackets. The top eight advance to match play.

Norton will play on regardless. He would be among the top nine players on teams not advancing to the fourth round will play for the individual championship.

“We have a long haul to match play, but it’s really good to play another day, no matter what,” Heppler said. “The NCAA (championship) is back out here for two more years, so every round is helpful.”

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