While others likely don’t, Georgia Tech can envision NCAA golf title

Georgia Tech golfer Noah Norton tees off at the NCAA regional tournament at Seminole Legacy Golf Club in Tallahassee, Fla., May 17, 2021. (Mike Olivella)
Georgia Tech golfer Noah Norton tees off at the NCAA regional tournament at Seminole Legacy Golf Club in Tallahassee, Fla., May 17, 2021. (Mike Olivella)

Credit: Mike Olivella

Credit: Mike Olivella

Georgia Tech’s golf team will tee off Friday at the NCAA championships seeded 22nd of 30 teams, and it’s not a ranking that coach Bruce Heppler quibbles with.

“It’s probably fair,” Heppler said this week. “I think we’re better than that at the end of the year.”

That said, Heppler likes his team’s chances to make it to the end and have a shot at the program’s first national championship.

“I think so,” Heppler said. “Things have to go right.”

For Heppler to have that confidence in his team indicates the remarkable course that his team has taken, even dating to March 2020. It was then that COVID-19 canceled the remainder of that season and took with it what was perhaps Tech and Heppler’s best shot at an NCAA title, virtually the only championship that has eluded the Yellow Jackets’ ultra-successful golf machine.

Then, the Jackets roster included defending U.S. Amateur champion Andy Ogletree and the teammate who would follow him in winning amateur golf’s most prestigious championship in August, Tyler Strafaci. A third team member, Luke Schniederjans, went on to win the Georgia Amateur championship last summer, following three tournament wins in his college career. While all three, then seniors, had the option to come back and use the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA, it was ultimately the end of their Tech careers. All are playing professionally.

“For those other three seniors who we had who were here for so long and put in all the work, you could see it in their faces, how distraught they were and how hard it is to end on that note,” senior Noah Norton said this week. “It hurt me a lot more to see it happen to them than it did to actually, on top of the actual disappointment of the season, to see how it felt for them and just to imagine what that must be like was actually much more painful than it actually was to find out the season was canceled.”

Norton did not resent their decisions not to come back. He said he wanted them to do what they believed was best for them.

“Yes, I would have loved to have played with them, but that’s what they wanted to do,” Norton said. “And I was like, ‘All right, let’s go do it with this group.’”

The group that Norton was tasked with leading was unquestionably different. The roster includes only two players with previous postseason experience, Norton and Connor Howe. The other four players who have come to be a part of Heppler’s top six — Will Dickson, Bartley Forrester, Christo Lamprecht and Ben Smith — had played a combined five tournaments as part of the Jackets’ starting lineup before this season. It was unfamiliar territory for a team that has won 18 ACC titles and had made 29 NCAA finals appearances, all but one since 1985.

“I didn’t know where to set expectations,” Norton said. “So I kind of just didn’t, and I was just going to let the season come as it may.”

As the ACC canceled the fall golf season, the Jackets were deprived that chance to gain early experience. The team played seven regular-season events in the spring. The Jackets won one tournament, the Wyoming Desert Intercollegiate, and began to play better toward the end of the season. At the final event before the ACC Tournament, the Jackets were second at the Calusa Cup in Naples, Fla., finishing ahead of four teams in the Golfstat Top 25.

“We’ve played better and better as we go on. We always knew physically we were good enough,” Norton said. “It was just about getting experience and getting reps and getting that momentum. Now there’s no doubt in my mind we can go run it all the way.”

While not his most talented team, this outfit has won the admiration and respect of Heppler, a 10-time ACC coach of the year, for its bond and perseverance through a trying year.

“To be able to stay engaged, stay together, was not easy to do,” Heppler said. “They’ve come a long way. I think this group, from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m., is probably as conscientious of a group as we’ve had. They’re very close.”

From Heppler’s perspective, Norton will have a lot to do with how Tech fares at the NCAA championships, being held at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. (The 30 teams will each play three rounds, with the top eight teams advancing to match play.)

“If Noah North plays like he can play, and he’s played in the desert in the past, we’ll be around for a long time,” Heppler said.

Norton has had mixed results as a senior, finishing in the top 10 of three events but also finishing toward the back in others. Among his career accomplishments are two All-ACC selections and qualifying for a spot in the 2019 U.S. Open.

“I think he’s ready to finish this the way he wants to,” Heppler said. “If he’s really, really, really competitive, these other guys will come along and feed into that.”

Tech arrives at Grayhawk with a significant advantage over almost the entire field. Heppler brought the team out to the course in January for its intrasquad qualifying tournament to determine who would make the travel squad. The team played one practice round and six competitive rounds. Beyond that, Norton and junior Connor Howe have been to Grayhawk as junior players.

Teams in the tournament get one practice round before the competition begins.

“We’ve probably seen it as much as anybody but Arizona State,” Heppler said. “I think it’s going to really make a difference.”

Playing in the desert, Norton said, requires a different style than courses Tech players typically see in the Southeast. With no trees, the wind plays differently, he said. The lack of trees and bushes can be deceiving.

“Because it does look wide open, and it’s not a lot of the time,” Norton said. “You have to pick your spots, be very precise in the distance and commit to where you’re aiming and be ready to battle if you end up in the desert.”

The Jackets have traveled a long way from having no set expectations for the season to now considering themselves a possibility to return to Atlanta with a trophy.

“I think the journey from August till now has been unbelievable,” Heppler said. “I think we’re playing our best golf now.”

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