Familiarity fuels Georgia Tech, Alabama at NCAAs

Georgia Tech's Ollie Schniederjans

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MILTON, Ga. –– There’s no secret that success at the NCAA Championship has a lot to do with familiarity.

And Tuesday’s first round at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple course was no exception.

Georgia Tech, which sits four shots behind leader Arizona State at 6-under 274, shared the title at this course back in the fall at the Ping/Golfweek Preview and they’ve had the advantage of playing the Crabapple course more than any other team with the Georgia Tech campus being less than an hour away.

“There has to be some form of comfort knowing what was out there waiting for them today,” Yellow Jackets head coach Bruce Heppler said. “We don’t play here all the time, but we’ve played here enough to know what to do.”

And then you have Alabama, which is third after an opening-round 275. The Crimson Tide knows what it’s like to compete for a national title. They won stroke play last year at Riviera before finishing runner-up to national champion Texas.

“Last year stung a little bit for sure, but I think more than anything it’s really helped with the experience,” said junior Bobby Wyatt, who shot 2-under 68 and was one of three Crimson Tide players under par.

The other two? Wyatt’s roommates, sophomore Justin Thomas (67) and junior Cory Whitsett (69). Those three combined for five individual titles and 15 top-5s this season. They were a combined 9 under before closing with four bogeys and just one birdie on their last four holes (Nos. 6-9). Thomas hit 16 greens on Tuesday, as well.

“There’s really not a whole lot of pressure when you go out there play,” Whitsett said. “You just know that the other guys are going to put up a lot of good numbers. We’re a really close-knit team. I think that’s one of the reasons for our success. We just love hanging out together.”

The Crabapple course hasn’t changed much since Georgia Tech rallied to tie California for the team title here last fall.

“The biggest difference is the rough because now you can play from the rough just fine,” said Yellow Jackets sophomore Ollie Schniederjans, who shot 3-under 67 on Tuesday. “You can bail out a little bit in the rough.”

But that’s about it. One thing that definitely hasn’t changed is the fast bentgrass greens.

Georgia Tech has played five rounds here in the last two weeks -- they were the only team allowed to practice on the course for the 10 days leading up to Monday's practice round because they are the host school. Alabama spent three days last week in Birmingham, Ala., playing at three courses with bentgrass greens (Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club, Birmingham Country Club and Old Overton Golf Club).

“The greens were every bit as good as these, so when we got here, we weren’t shocked,” Alabama head coach Jay Seawell said.

For a Georgia Tech team that has no national-championship experience, that familiarity was critical. It also helped that they experienced pressure at the NCAA Tallahassee Regional, where they flirted with the cutline all three days before finishing fourth.

“Hardships and hard putts and the speed of things, I just don’t think it’s out of the ordinary and I think that’s to our advantage,” Heppler said.

Not to mention this is practically a home tournament for the Yellow Jackets.

“It’s weird; You’re staying at a hotel where you live,” said Schniederjans. “But it’s awesome. I love it. My friends came out and watched me today.”

They got to see Schniederjans’ great start, too. The Georgia Tech sophomore birdied his first four holes (Nos. 10-13) and then missed a 2-footer for birdie at No. 14 – “the start was ridiculous,” he said.

Georgia Tech’s start to this tournament was impressive, as well. Traditionally a late-round team, Heppler was pleased with his team’s performance. Shun Yat Hak, Seth Reeves and Anders Albertson all shot 69.

Schniederjans called it a “perfect start.”

Alabama enters the NCAA Championship with five straight victories and seven total wins, including at the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional. They’ve been one of the most dominant teams in college golf in recent years. They are used to the big stage.

Yet, this week kind of snuck up on them fast.

“All of us had a feeling of shock that it was time play in the national championship again,” Whitsett said.

Thomas and Seawell, especially.

“Everyone had left this morning and it was just me and coach Seawell eating and we were like, ‘This is crazy. It feels like just yesterday I was hitting my first tee shot at Riviera,’” Thomas said. “The year goes by so fast.”

Said Seawell: “You build to this and you build to this and you build to this and all of a sudden, bang, it’s right in front of you.”

Thomas called it “a feel like no other.” But it’s a feel him and his teammates are used to. And while Georgia Tech’s players may not be used to playing for a national title, they know the feeling of being at home.

Both hope to use that to their advantage this week.

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