Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler had the honor of coaching the U.S. team in the 2015 Palmer Cup, a Ryder Cup-style event for American and European collegiate golfers. Part of the duties, though, meant speaking at the opening ceremonies before several hundred people, an attendance that included the event’s namesake, Arnold Palmer.
“I’m just terrified,” Heppler said Monday, the day after Palmer died at the age of 87. “Again, it’s a little bit overwhelming for a guy from southern Utah to be speaking to a group of people and have Arnold Palmer back there.”
After the ceremonies, Heppler had a chance for a brief conversation with Palmer. He wanted to thank Palmer, but before he could say anything, Palmer thanked him and wished him luck in the event.
“Just to have him acknowledge that I didn’t mess it up was a pretty big deal for me,” Heppler said.
It was a signature Palmer gesture.
“He kind of moves it from himself and puts it on the other person,” Heppler said.
Afterwards, Heppler called his father to tell him about it.
“To tell your dad that you had this conversation with Arnold Palmer, it was really pretty cool,” Heppler said.
At a dinner honoring both teams, Heppler recalled, players were supposed to file out down the center of the room. One of the U.S. players, Stanford’s Maverick McNealy, came up with the idea that the teams should make a detour to all stop at Palmer’s table to shake his hand and thank him for his presence.
“I’ll never forget – when he saw we were coming, he stood up and he shook every kid’s hand and you just saw the tears roll down his face,” Heppler said. “That’s something I still get chills about.”
The event, at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., was the last Palmer Cup that Palmer attended. Heppler was tickled that Palmer, who might be expected to have little interest in a college golfing event, was on the course in a golf cart, taking in the tournament.
“All the things he could be doing – obviously the event was named after him – to be there and feel like you were coaching something and Arnold Palmer was watching was overwhelming to me,” he said.
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