Georgia Tech entered the NCAA Championship with two distinct advantages over the field.
First, no player in its starting five had teed it up in the NCAA finals. (Ignorance is bliss, right?)
Second, it was the only team allowed to practice at Capital City Club’s Crabapple course in the days leading up to the Championship.
Whatever the formula, it’s working for the Yellow Jackets.
A year after failing to make it to the Championship, Georgia Tech ripped off a second consecutive 6-under 274 Wednesday to take a one-shot lead over top-ranked California after the second round Wednesday. Defending champion Texas is two back, while red-hot Alabama is three back.
“It is unfair (to the other teams). We’re hosting a tournament on a course we get to play as much as we want,” said Georgia Tech sophomore Ollie Schniederjans, who had fired a 2-under 68 Wednesday.
“(The other 29 teams) only get to play it the day before. Of course, they played it in the (Golfweek/Ping) Preview (at Crabapple in the fall). It’s not playing different than it did then. For the teams that got to play in the Preview, they shouldn’t have much of an excuse. I don’t know what the NCAA should do about it. I definitely think hosting is an advantage.”
The familiarity with Crabapple is also helping the Yellow Jackets’ inexperienced team – they’ve been able to focus on a course close to home.
“We are playing with five guys that never played in the national tournament before, this part of it. So, that familiarity (with the course) helps,” Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler said. “They know what’s out there. They’ve hit the shots. It’s not like they’re uncomfortable.”
The NCAA allows for the host team to use the Championship facility as often as it likes before the tournament, while the other 29 teams had to wait until Monday’s practice round. That extra practice time hasn’t led to success on the course, however, as no team has won as the host school since Oklahoma in 1989.
Heppler said that the Jackets played at Crabapple three times last week, and sees a more relaxed, confident team on the course through two rounds.
“It’s like the (PGA) Tour, guys go places because they think they can play well. We just play the course well,” Heppler said. “Distance is not a problem and we play hard, fast greens a lot. I think the conditions, with the firm, fast conditions, we play those all the time. I don’t think it is so much the course, but I think that is our advantage, we are used to the conditions.”
Tim Mickelson, head coach of overnight leader Arizona State and former NCAA committee member, actually thinks that it puts the host team in a pressure cooker in front of their home fans.
“My belief is that it adds a little bit of pressure,” Mickelson said after his team fired an 8-over 288 to slide back to seventh at 2 under for the tournament.
“It makes you more comfortable because it is your home course, but there is more pressure on you to succeed.”
And succeed the Jackets did, with three of Tech’s five starters in the top 21, including all-ACC selections Schniederjans at 5 under (T-4) and Anders Albertson at 4 under (T-9).
Albertson says playing Crabapple helps him with course management.
“We played out here a lot the last couple weeks. I know what i usually shoot, I know what I can shoot,” Albertson said. “I know where I can fly it off a tee, where to miss. Being familiar is a huge advantage. Standing on the first tee, you know what you are getting into.”
And they got after it early – taking advantage of the birdie holes on the front nine, playing those holes at 5 under cumulatively – but still trailed Cal by as many as nine shots after the Bears moved all the way to 20 under.
But the Jackets knew that the tougher back nine awaited, including the murderer’s row that is Nos. 15-18. Georgia Tech played those holes at 1 over, while Cal was 8 over on the closing stretch.
“I knew the front, in the morning, was going to get torn up. I saw California all of a sudden was first. Surprise. Shocker,” said Schniederjans. “I knew the back nine, (we) just had to hold on.”
Heppler knew that the Jackets needed to stay focused on themselves, and not Cal’s big run.
“I am hoping (my players) aren’t looking (at the leaderboard). I can’t throw, or go to zone instead of man-to-man or triangle-and-two. We can’t control them.”
Ignorance can be bliss, indeed.