Wildman Q&A: Ga. Tech coach Bruce Heppler
Last year, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were talented enough to compete for a national championship. Tech, with three seniors, fell to Augusta State in the opening round of match play at the NCAA Championship. Bruce Heppler has reloaded and still has a buzz about his team. Could this be the year for the Yellow Jackets? I spoke with Heppler about his team’s chances:
Question: The team has had some ups and downs to start the year. However, the young squad recently won at the Brickyard after finishing eighth in Iowa at the Golfweek Conference Challenge. What are your thoughts on where the team is now?
Answer: In college golf, you have to start over every year because it doesn’t matter anymore what you did the year before. To start the year, all the guys on the team wonder what they are capable of, but until you go out and do it, it’s just an unknown. When you win your first tournament, it shows what we can do, especially with the amount of turnover we had from a year ago. It’s a big deal to get your first win, and everyone played well for us, which was good to see.
Q: Ollie Schniederjans and Anders Albertson are two freshmen whom people seem to overlook because they enrolled in school this past January. Do you think enrolling early has helped them develop?
A: Any time you have a serious academic component to your everyday college environment, it’s good to come in and get situated. It’s challenging for a freshman to learn right off the bat how to balance school, workouts and practice. Our team qualifies a lot for tournaments, and also getting used to some of the courses we play on a regular basis can only help young players for the future. Just in general, I think, it’s beneficial for a student-athlete to get the opportunity to see how to balance going to class, followed by a day of practice and playing in a qualifier. That first semester for those two was extremely helpful to prepare them for this fall.
Q: Is this team where you thought it would be at this point in the season?
A: I thought that these have been some standard results. When you have a lot of turnover, instability and inexperience, it takes time to adjust. We had three guys who were seasoned and experienced and replaced them with guys that are pretty inexperienced at the college level. This is a game of confidence, and the biggest thing freshmen or players that don’t have much experience need to do is go out and play. When we were up in Iowa a few weeks ago, we got smacked. A geographic difference is something some players and/or teams need to adjust to. Best example is when you see a top-ranked Florida team go to a regional in Oregon and miss a cut, or a top California team go to Florida and miss a cut. The grass is different; the weather is different; there’s so many variables that if you had guys that are experienced with, you’re more comfortable with. We’re getting there, but it’s a long year and they’ll gain that experience along the way.
Q: This year’s freshman class gets tons of attention. Jordan Spieth (Texas), Patrick Rodgers (Stanford), Justin Thomas (Alabama), as well as a few others, get all the headlines. But people, I think, forget that Ollie and Anders are still freshmen. Where do you put them in this freshman class?
A: It’s an interesting question. For whatever reason, as juniors Ollie played more junior golf and Anders played more amateur golf. Both are extremely talented and have pretty impressive resumes themselves. This freshman class in college golf this year, though, is one of the best I have ever seen. Lots of people are waiting for people to do their things, and for some they didn’t have to wait long. Patrick Rodgers won Olympia Fields, which was very impressive. I thought (Justin) Thomas winning his first start was impressive, and Spieth almost winning the Pate was a heck of a showing. It seems like all these big-name freshmen are winning early, and if they do it often can become rock stars. Ollie and Anders are working hard, and they’ll get their time soon enough.
Q: What does your team need to improve on now?
A: We need to be more consistent. We saw a lot of our lead in Macon at the Brickyard slip away in the final round, but we fought back with 10 to 12 birdies and a couple eagles in the last few holes. I think we need a full fall semester to see what we have, and we’ll take a look at all the guys on the roster so that everyone gets to have a shot to prove themselves. We’ll play some strange groups, but it’s all about getting it right for the run teams want to make at the end of the year.
Q: Last year, it seemed like there were four dominant teams: Oklahoma State, Alabama, UCLA and Georgia Tech. Do you think we’ll have that again this year with a few teams, and with which ones?
A: I think what we’ve seen so far are some decisive victories. What Texas did at the Jerry Pate was really impressive. I think the year we were at the Honors Course, there were five or six teams that had a real shot to win it all. Then, at Karsten Creek, there were probably 10-12 teams. This year, right now, I think you can talk about five or six teams being at that upper tier. Duke has a lot of its guys back and will be good; Stanford has most of its team back and added a Walker Cupper in Patrick Rodgers. Then you've got Texas, which had a great team and added Jordan Spieth. Auburn has a really good team, and Alabama lost Bud Cauley, but it added Justin Thomas to the team, and you can’t forget about UCLA. The Bruins have just about everyone back for them. Most of these teams may have lost a good player, but they added a great freshman that can help them win now. We have some catching up to do, but there’s a long way to go.