May 2, 2002
By Wes Durham, “Voice of the Jackets” – Sometimes the perception is that Georgia Tech’s Bruce Heppler has the easiest job in college athletics. He’s the head coach of one of the most successful golf programs in the NCAA. The program contains a history with our nation’s finest amateurs prior to World War II to some current and rising stars of today’s professional tours. How hard could it be to be the golf coach of the Yellow Jackets?
It’s not easy to be the coach and it’s tougher to play.
How would you like to be the guy who had to tell Bryce Molder or Matt Kuchar that they hadn’t qualified to play in the upcoming tournament? It almost happened to two of Tech recent stars during their career with Coach Heppler. That gauntlet of qualifying is cruel and crosses all lines to determine who is going to the event. But it represents the real life of golf for these young men.
In college, golf is still an individual situation, but you have to understand the team concept. Each time Tech goes to a tournament, they take five players and each day the four best scores count. A team total is developed from those four players, and the lowest score wins. Heppler knows it is unlike any other sport on the collegiate level.
“When other teams have a home game, they dress a majority of the players that have practiced that week and run them on the field with their helmets on,” says the seventh-year Tech coach, whose team hosts the NCAA East Regional Golf Championship May 16-18 at Settindown Creek in Roswell, Ga. “All 13 players on the basketball team will dress. Those guys may not play, but that makes the practices and other stuff worth it. At the end of four years, they might have ‘Senior Night’, and get their chance to start. That may make four years worth it.”
“But in golf, the last two years, our sixth guy, the next one in line, has played one event last year and one event this year. The No. 7 and No. 8 guy has not played at all in an event representing Georgia Tech.”
Six times this year that low team total has belonged to the Yellow Jackets. Heppler’s squad has been at the top of the national rankings most of the year and again feature some of the top college players in the country. Junior Troy Matteson has three tournament titles, including a pair on the spring schedule. But to show you how strong Tech is, at the ACC Tournament Matteson wasn’t on top of his game, and his mates still picked up the slack in the Jackets’ title run.
The focus on each individual in golf also means the pressure could be the most intense on the collegiate level. Heppler knows that his sport and his players may have only one equal.
“Tennis is probably the only sport that is similar,” he says. “The problem is when you are out there (on the course), it’s like you are out there with no clothes on. No one can hit the ball for you, no one can make the putt for you. There are no timeouts. It boils down to being a five-hour free throw shooting contest. Other sports require reaction, but in golf you have to stop and think about each shot, sometimes for eight or nine minutes.”
But the preparation process to be good is as solid as the five players that compete in each event.
When most students are still in bed dreading the 8 a.m. class, Heppler’s team has been at work for nearly 90 minutes in the weight room going through a regular workout program. At 5:50 a.m., the team and the coach are going at it. Some coaches might not be there, but Heppler and/or assistant Brandon Goethals are always in the mix, because it’s a way to make golf a “team game.”
The plan also includes the full understanding of the academic load at Tech. Respecting the fact that it might mean you can’t go hang out with people on Thursday or Friday night because that means you won’t have time to practice the next afternoon after classes are completed.
In many ways, Heppler is only giving his players a preview of what will be required at the professional level. At some point every weekend hacker has thought about being good enough to play on the professional tour. Whether it’s half-cocked or not is irrelevant to those players. But for golfers at Tech, that quest requires the kind of focus and commitment they get from Heppler.
The truth remains that the PGA Tour is one of the hardest professional clubs to join. Unlike other pro levels of play, there is no money guarantee unless you have a strong sponsorship package. Week to week, the player is trying to prove himself again so at the end of the year he doesn’t have to go to the back of the line.
The environment already exists with Tech’s program. Remember there was one tournament where it looked like Bryce Molder might not make the five-man team for the upcoming tournament, but he finished high enough in the qualifying.
“Everybody has a different approach, but we qualify a lot around here. We are earning this right on the golf course, and you can direct it right to the numbers. We let the players determine a lot, because that’s how golf professionally is.”
From the morning workouts, to the self-discipline of schoolwork, right down to the pressure of qualifying just to get the chance to go. It’s a system and plan that is paying off for Heppler and his team. But is it the sole basis of their success?
“I have recreated the old saying, ‘You can’t lead from the rear’. I think our staff has made a significant commitment to the time spent on the job. From recruiting to fund-raising to the day-to-day administrative things that go on with the program. I think the players have been made to feel that no one is being asked to do more than the coaching staff.”
“Secondly, we have worked very hard to recruit good players, but in college there are decisions that are made in regard to making good grades and playing well or making a bad choice that might cause yourself some personal grief. We have been able slowly but surely through peer pressure and coach pressure to create an environment where good choices are a popular thing,” Heppler said.
Georgia Tech’s golf success is measured ultimately by the wins they will achieve, but you have to admire the success that Bruce Heppler and his players have earned by getting the program to this level of consistency.
When Tech hosts the NCAA East Regional in a couple of weeks, it will mark the Jackets’ fifth straight appearance in the event. Tech won the East bracket in 1998 and 1999. The field is replete with 10 of the top 20 golf schools in the country playing for 10 spots in the NCAA Tournament field at the Scarlet Course at Ohio State University, May 29-June 1.