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In his 25 seasons at Georgia Tech, head coach Bruce Heppler has never cut a player on scholarship. He doesn’t plan on that changing, either, which is why when he called a meeting with struggling senior Will Dickson last April, his message was clear.
“I told him, ‘Look, the reality is you really don’t play anymore, you’re not really a golfer, and so I need you to go play in some tournaments this summer,” Heppler recalled. “I don’t care where they are or what they are, you just need to go play, or we might have to give your tee time to someone else.”
At that point, Dickson had already hit rock bottom with his game. The once promising junior player from Rhode Island, who reached the quarterfinals of the 2014 U.S. Junior before losing to eventual champion Will Zalatoris, had gone his first three seasons without cracking the Yellow Jackets’ lineup. He had made just two total starts, including finishing dead last in Georgia Tech’s home event as a sophomore. He lost his driver shortly after arriving on campus as a freshman, and later that season, while his teammates were playing for an ACC title, he tore his right ACL and meniscus playing basketball.
“I had zero confidence,” Dickson said. “I didn’t really want to go to the course, didn’t want to put a scorecard in my hand. Those were some really rough days.”
Heppler witnessed it all: the weight of personal expectations, the fear of failure, the bad shots, the bad rounds, the embarrassment.
“It got to be where he almost stopped playing,” Heppler said.
But he didn’t. And given the option of leaving the team, keeping his scholarship money and finishing out his business administration degree, or playing on, Dickson chose the latter.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced a premature end to last season, Dickson decided to spend the next few months with his girlfriend’s family in Waynesboro, Georgia, a small town south of Augusta. With just one golf club, Waynesboro isn’t exactly a golf mecca, but as it turns out it was exactly what Dickson needed.
Dickson hooked up with a group out of Waynesboro Country Club and soon he was playing matches every day. It wasn’t exactly the stiffest competition, players of all ages and handicaps, nor the toughest track, but weeks of shooting scores in the 60s – instead of 80s – did wonders for Dickson’s psyche.
“It not only brought my game back, but it really brought the joy of the game back to me,” Dickson said.
Later that summer, Dickson entered the Magnolia Amateur and missed the cut by just one. He had made more progress by August when he returned to school and shot 68 in a round with former teammates Luke Schniederjans and Andy Ogletree, the 2019 U.S. Amateur winner who in a few months would earn low-amateur honors at the Masters. With Georgia Tech unable to compete in the fall, Dickson kept playing, including four times in GCAA Amateur Series events with a best finish of second.
He also notched a top-10 at an amateur tournament at the Golf Club of Georgia, the same course where he didn’t beat a single player a couple of years earlier and capped his year with a top-5 at the Orlando International Amateur.
“All of a sudden he was OK being Will Dickson again and all the noise was just gone,” Heppler said.
Dickson qualified for his first tournament earlier this month at Camp Creek in Watersound, Florida – he won the qualifier a week prior in Arizona by 11 shots – and led Georgia Tech in its spring opener with a T-15 finish.
“It was a long wait, but it was worth it,” said Dickson, who then made another starting five for this week’s Southwestern Invitational in California, where he was T-9 through 36 holes.
A year ago, Dickson was poised to become not a professional golfer but a financial advisor after college. Now, his dream is off life support, and as you can imagine, Dickson is enjoying every minute of his revival.
“The goals were high, the expectations were high,” Dickson said, “but going through the last three years, I pinch myself every morning the fact that I can do this again.”
Added Heppler: “Like I told him, the most important thing is how you go out the door. Some of these lessons he’s learned, if he were to ask me now should he go play for living, I would encourage him to do that.”
Nice guys finish first
Shortly after the first of the year, USC transfer Yuxin Lin had only been in Gainesville, Florida, a week and was already drawing rave reviews from his Gator teammates.
“I had four or five guys come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Coach, this guy is such a perfect addition to our team,’” Florida head coach J.C. Deacon said. “I was a little surprised with that because we’re bringing in a top-20 player in the world and he’s going to be really hard to beat. But they love him and we’re super excited to have him here. He smiles a lot and brings a lot of positive energy to our team.”
If nice guys finish last, then no one told the Gators. Lin sunk a clinching, 12-foot par putt on the second playoff hole Tuesday at the Timuquana Collegiate as Florida edged Liberty for the team trophy. Lin tied for 19th in his Florida debut along with teammate Joe Pagdin, who made a birdie on the second playoff hole.
Ricky Castillo led the team with a T-8 finish while Manny Girona, who played his way into the lineup after five qualifying rounds and an extra playoff round, shared 15th to tie his career best college finish.
“It was like a dream way to start,” Deacon said. “I don’t think maybe we played our best, but our guys showed a lot of toughness. … It was really fun watching them shine under the gun.”
States Fort was the unlikeliest of medalists at the Any Given Tuesday Intercollegiate in Kiawah Island, S.C.
The Coastal Carolina graduate student nearly took a job as a cigar broker last summer before deciding to return to school and pursue his MBA. But when the fall tuition arrived, Coastal’s fall prognosis was grim with no tournaments currently on the schedule, so Fort decided to skip the semester and work on his game.
“Not knowing if we’d even play, we just agreed let’s save the money, get better and play in the spring,” said Coastal head coach Jim Garren.
Fort returned this spring bigger, stronger and faster. He closed with a bogey-free, 7-under 65 Tuesday as he lit up Oak Point Golf Club to the tune of 11 under and a four-shot win. Even better, he also helped lead the Chanticleers to a 13-shot team victory over Kennesaw State.
“No better way to come back than to lead your team to a win,” Garren said.
It's a performance that, while unlikely, certainly warrants a celebratory cigar.
What's college golf in January without a little wild weather?
As harsh conditions affected play from coast to coast, nothing was more extreme than what players experienced in Arizona. The Arizona State women won the Match in the Desert on Monday in Gold Canyon, Arizona, while battling cold, wind, rain, hail and, last but not least, snow.
The Sun Devils, winning in their start since head coach Missy Farr-Kaye's cancer announcement, clipped UCLA by 14 shots. Arizona had just three players participate as its three Taiwan players are still in the process of returning to the U.S.
That wasn't the only snow day in Arizona. On Tuesday, the second round of the Arizona Intercollegiate in Tucson was delayed because of flurries, a day after strong winds paused play briefly.