Sept. 9, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
If home is where the heart is, Kris Mikkelsen’s ticker will beat at Georgia Tech for as long as he lives and his name and career catalog will be around even longer. He’d be hard pressed to say whether he’s more amazed that he’s about to be inducted into the athletic Hall of Fame, or that it will be Tech’s.
He was determined to take his fine golf game elsewhere upon graduating from Etowah High School. Then, head golf coach Bruce Heppler showed up, recruiting Mikkelsen to be part of a talented squad that came within whiskers of national titles in 2000 and 2002 and finished fourth in between.
Who would’ve thunk it? Not Mikkelsen.
“It’s funny . . . I grew up in Woodstock and when I was young, I fell in love with the idea of going away to college,” he recalled. “My older brother had gone to Vanderbilt, and he was living in Washington, D.C. and I just became captivated with the idea of going away from home.
“As I got deeper into the process I got to know coach Heppler. He convinced me I could go as far as I wanted, and after meeting him, seeing what he was doing with the program and meeting the guys, the core principles resonated. It was clear that he was going to prepare me to be a better golfer and all-around person.”
Mikkelsen had to become a better golfer to keep up. He didn’t make the travel squad that won the ACC title and then went to the NCAAs his freshman year, nor as a sophomore in 2000 when the Jackets lost in a playoff to Oklahoma State.
Those teams were stacked, and it was a uniquely friendly battle to make the travel teams with the likes of Carlton Forrester, Bryce Molder, Matt Kuchar and Troy Matteson whacking around the little white ball at the same time.
Kuchar, Molder and Matteson were each named national player of the year at some point in their college careers.
“Carlton, Bryce, Matt and Troy [are in the Tech Hall of Fame] and I’m sure Matt Weibring will be. We had a nice run,” Mikkelsen said. “I tell people that my freshmen and sophomore years we had six guys who would go on to be All-America at least twice so every tournament we were leaving at least one at home.
“My freshman year Wes Latimer and Mike Pearson both finished in the top five in the ACCs [which Tech won] and weren’t on that list – it was a deep bench.”
Mikkelsen kept improving, finishing sixth and ninth to earn all-conference honors as the Jackets won ACC titles his junior and senior seasons. Tech also was fourth in the NCAAs in 2001, when he was honorable mention All-America, and runner up in ’02, when he was second team All-America.
He left the Jackets with 13 top-10 finishes in 34 career events, and another four where he landed in the top 20. His scoring average of 72.89 was sixth-best in program history when he graduated in 2002 with a degree in management.
While giving pro golf a try, and finding some success, the game felt different.
“All of the things I loved about college golf and being on a team were absent. It was very singular, very isolating, and it became very clear to me that it wasn’t something that I wanted to do as a career,” he recalled. “The shared experiences of your successes weren’t there.
“When we would win a tournament by 20 shots, the bus ride back to the airport and the plane ride, and the next three days on campus you were on such a high. I found out how much of a team-oriented person I was.”
Heppler is helming his 21st team at Tech, and remembers fondly.
“That was a unique time,” the head coach said. “You had Kooch and Bryce and neither caring who won the ACC [between them]. That was probably as far away from the names on jerseys that we’d ever been. A lot of them had played other sports so they got the team thing.
“It really was all that mattered . . . [the competition] forced everybody to shoot lower, and lower and lower . . . it really produced some serious stuff.”
Mikkelsen couldn’t play for the Jackets again, but in 2004 he turned back to connections forged and lessons learned as a student-athlete. He knew a thing or two after making ACC Academic Honor Roll all four years at Tech, and being selected as an All-American scholar in his junior and senior years.
“When my [pro] golf career was coming to an end, I made a list of 40 or 50 people I had met; the goal was to contact them and see what kind of opportunities were out there,” he said. “At that time, real estate was strong, and a lot of indicators pointed to that.”
Several people Mikkelsen met while a student-athlete at Tech were critical in his post-golf career path.
Heppler and the golf program have built a stout support group as the Jackets have won 11 ACC titles since he took over in 1995-‘96, including eight of the past 10.
Prominent Tech golf boosters Gene Brooks and Mike Spears offered considerable guidance, and Mikkelsen took their leads – and those of others – to fashion a successful career financing commercial assets.
“The interaction we had with the golf boosters provided so much education beyond the academics,” he said of his Tech experience. “The interpersonal relationships, and learning how to interact with alumni . . . those were really valuable lessons.”
All the wanderlust ebbed, and Atlanta remains home.
“Coach Heppler was correct; you move 35 miles away to downtown Atlanta and you can be as far away as you want,” Mikkelsen said. “The alumni network is so strong here it made no sense to leave.”
After working for Engler Financial Group, he transitioned when Walker & Dunlop acquired Engler and stays busy on a national level. He still finds time for the sport he loves.
Mikkelsen competes occasionally on the amateur level, and serves as president of the Atlanta Junior Golf Association. Forrester is a neighbor in Buckhead, and he stays in touch with several former teammates and Heppler.
He keeps tabs on the Jackets, too. Mikkelsen is a football and basketball season ticket holder, and he and his wife – a former Davidson field hockey player – are known to bring their 3-year-old son and 20-month-old daughter to The Flats.
“I stay as close as I can [to the golf program], and I’m very proud to be supporting the team the same way the alumni and boosters were in my time,” he explained. “I think a few of the guys who I was teammates with are going to try to find time [to attend Hall induction festivities on Oct. 16-17].
“So much of it was the relationship building with teammates, people close to the program who enjoyed golf and embraced our success. It’s worked out nicely. That’s one of the great things about staying in Atlanta. I remain connected, and my children, for better or worse, are going to grow up Tech fans well conditioned to root against the Dogs.”