Yellow Jackets long overdue for national glory

Georgia Tech's James White during the 2010 NCAA Championship.

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Kyle Scott’s path to Georgia Tech included a trans-Atlantic flight, a broken back and a stint with South Africa’s national under-18 baseball training squad. He didn’t start playing golf seriously until he was 17 years old but broke 70 after less than a year of rigorous practice.

“That was pretty cool,” Scott said of shooting under par in less time than it takes many people to break 100.

You know what else would be cool? Winning an NCAA title, especially when it would be the first for one of the nation’s premier programs. Georgia Tech, which hasn’t gotten a lot of buzz this year despite the Yellow Jackets’ three victories and consistent top-5 ranking, has a good chance to do that in the upcoming postseason.

Scott gets mentioned first in this story about the nation’s No. 2 team because he took the most unique route to the Jackets’ roster. He broke his back in a golf-cart accident, then spent two years between high school and college recovering from two back surgeries and improving his game. At 21, he made his college debut for NCAA Division II West Florida, then transferred to Georgia Tech before last season.

At No. 12 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, he’s also among the nation’s best players.

That last fact alone doesn’t set him apart from his teammates, though. Senior J.T. Griffin is ranked ninth, and junior James White is 17th after victories at the U.S. Collegiate and Puerto Rico Classic. Senior Paul Haley, ranked 54th, will enter regionals on a two-tournament winning streak, including the ACC Championship.

“It’s very much a group effort,” said head coach Bruce Heppler, whose team won the recent ACC Championship by 20 strokes, its second consecutive victory. “We may not have the Player of the Year candidate, but we have guys that will make All-America teams and have won tournaments.”

Many of Heppler’s past teams have been defined by players who were household names in the amateur game. He has coached a U.S. Amateur winner (Matt Kuchar), an NCAA champion (Troy Matteson) and a rare four-time first-team All-American (Bryce Molder). Georgia Tech has been represented on four of the past six U.S. Walker Cup teams.

Despite those individual accomplishments, the Yellow Jackets never have nailed down an NCAA team title. Since Golfweek’s college rankings debuted in 1999, the Jackets twice have finished a season at No. 1 and never worse than 14th.

Kuchar, Matteson and Molder formed the nation’s top team in 2000, but Georgia Tech lost an NCAA Championship playoff to a Charles Howell III-led Oklahoma State team. Tech has been NCAA runner-up three times under Heppler.

Oklahoma State will be Tech’s main competition again this year. The top-ranked Cowboys have one big advantage: The NCAA Championship will be conducted May 31-June 5 at OSU’s home course, Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla.

Josh Gregory, head coach of Augusta State, said this Georgia Tech squad reminds him of his team that won last year’s NCAA title.

“They have no weak links,” he said.

Tech’s starters share two skills: straight tee shots and stellar short games.

Heppler and assistant coach Christian Newton have focused on short-game training over the past 18 months. They’re convinced that area can be the difference between winning and losing.

“Kids hit it good everywhere,” Heppler said. “You used to see a real difference between the No. 1 team and No. 30 team. You can't tell the difference anymore . . . so you have to figure out what makes the difference.”

That short-game focus has paid large dividends. Matteson, now a two-time PGA Tour winner, called Heppler “regimented,” adding, “He kept us focused on what we needed to be focused on.”

Haley said an improved short game has taken pressure off other parts of his game because he knows he can correct most on-course mistakes. Tech alum Stewart Cink, the 2009 British Open champion, re-emphasized that point during a pre-Masters round with the team.

Staying calm at Karsten Creek will be key to any team’s chances, but also difficult to do. It’s among the most demanding sites to host an NCAA Championship. The Yellow Jackets are accustomed to difficult courses, though. They practice at East Lake Golf Club, site of the PGA Tour’s Tour Championship, and the Golf Club of Georgia, two courses that stay in tournament condition year-round.

Two seasons ago, Haley didn’t crack the team’s starting lineup once. He was an All-American last year, in part because of a ninth-place finish at the NCAA Championship. The Yellow Jackets had a similar late surge last year, winning the ACC Championship by 13 and finishing third in stroke play at the NCAA Championship before losing (to Augusta State) in the first round of match play. They carried that success over to this season.

“We weren’t quite sure if we could win last year,” Griffin said. “This year, it’s more of a reality.”

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