Tech golfers must do it Heppler's way

Yellow Jackets coach sticks to expectations as star players come and go

The sky was leaden and weepy, warning away the casual golfer.

But playing golf for Georgia Tech is not a casual thing.

A little rain didn’t shoo the Yellow Jackets away from the Golf Club of Georgia on Wednesday as they prepared for an NCAA regional tournament date. They have a long, proud tradition of playing through the elements.

While at Tech, the world’s 16th-ranked pro, Matt Kuchar, used to get his khakis in a bunch whenever coach Bruce Heppler dragged the team outdoors on freezing winter days for a practice round. Then he’d get even, sneaking into Heppler’s office while the coach was away and turning the thermostat way down so he’d have to work in the cold.

Prankster players come and go. But Heppler is still at Georgia Tech, still doing whatever it is a successful golf coach does.

To the casual observer, that seemed to mostly involve being a one-man gallery, shadowing his players around the course as a very interactive spectator.

“What are you doing up around the green and all the other guys are laying up?” he asked freshman Anders Albertson at the green of a par-5. “You lift weights during the break?”

“Hey, good shot,” he called out whenever a player hit one within 20 feet of the pin.

“That’s my job for the next five days, to yell, ‘Good shot!’” Heppler explained.

Keep it upbeat

Laying down an upbeat tempo as the Yellow Jackets prepare for another postseason — beginning Thursday at the Norman, Okla., regional — was his immediate concern. Heppler determined early this season that his young group required a lot of nurturing.

Whatever he’s doing, it’s working pretty well. The 52-year-old Heppler has been Tech’s coach since 1995 and only twice in that time have the Yellow Jackets not been invited to the postseason. They are just off their fourth straight ACC championship, their sixth in seven years. His guys graduate. And they regularly keep the PGA Tour restocked.

Heppler is a unique sort, a golf coach who, for example, doesn’t play golf. Hasn’t since a round at Augusta National four years ago (shot 86, to the best of his memory). You’d think access to the best of courses — Tech regularly practices at East Lake as well as the Golf Club of Georgia — would be one of the great perks of his position.

But now, he just likes to watch. Between coaching, recruiting, fund-raising and tending to business at home with his wife and two children, he never had time to play anyway. His game deteriorated, until one day Heppler asked himself, “Why should I add frustration to my personal life?”

His own college golf career was brief and unspectacular. He played for one year at Dixie Junior College in St. George, Utah, went off to South Africa to serve his Mormon mission and returned to find the Dixie golf program disbanded. He put away competitive golf and got an accounting degree at BYU.

A career as a CPA just didn’t add up for Heppler. He decided to re-invent himself as an athletic administrator, going off to UMass to get his master’s in sports management. While there, serving an internship at nearby Amherst College, the mighty Lord Jeffs found themselves suddenly without a golf coach. Heppler knew which end of the club to hold, which qualified him for an immediate battlefield promotion to head coach.

Getting minds right

A calling had found him. He had never dreamed of coaching; the Amherst accident just nudged him in that direction. Heppler did his time as an assistant at UNLV and Oklahoma State before Tech hired him to replace Puggy Blackmon in ’95.

He brought with him a style that was simple, direct, free of pretense.

He does not profess to be anyone’s swing doctor. “We don’t have time to be Butch Harmon in college golf,” he said.

“We’ll work with them as little or as much as they want on their swing,” said Tech assistant Christian Newton. “Guys have kinda developed their own games.”

Nor does Heppler, while admittedly a demanding sort, paint himself as a Knute Rockne in a golf shirt.

“We don’t have to work together. You could have five really selfish guys out there,” Heppler said, portraying the differences between his job and Paul Johnson’s. “There’s no sharing the ball. I don’t spend a lot of time scouting opponents.”

Coaching golf, as Heppler sees it, is as much a matter of getting his players’ minds right as their swings grooved. Running what he calls “a program of self-esteem,” he can get downright preachy when it comes to bettering his guys.

One of his freshmen players arrived at school, Heppler said, “with the least amount of interest in education of anyone I’ve ever recruited.” He got all A’s last semester. That, according to the tao of Heppler, is going to help him on the golf course.

“Maybe he starts thinking, ‘I’m smarter than I thought I was, I’m more disciplined, more organized.’ That has to help,” Heppler said.

Punishment runs

When he rouses his players for their three-times-a-week 6 a.m. weightlifting and conditioning sessions, he doesn’t just sell it as a way to add a few more yards off the tee. “Maybe a girl starts looking at him who hasn’t looked before. It’s another part of the self-esteem thing,” Heppler said.

“Until you can see yourself in a way that golf doesn’t define you, you can’t let it go [and play freely],” he philosophized.

In addition to the regularly scheduled workout sessions, there are the punitive ones tacked on for any number of offenses.

Bryce Molder, playing this week at The Players Championship, arrived at Tech in 1997 as a hotshot recruit out of Arkansas. He also arrived late for his first team meeting, having failed to change his watch from Central Time. He was running the next day.

Another time, running stadium steps with the team after some had missed an appointment with an academic adviser, Molder remembers thinking, “Doesn’t [Heppler] know who I am?

“I was so mad. Looking back, I should have gotten more [running] for complaining.”

Current Tech All-American James White had his come-to-Heppler moment last season as a junior. Feeling overwhelmed by school work and unsure about the readiness of his game, he spent most of a tournament at Oklahoma State sulking.

“I was frustrated and stressed out,” White said. “[Heppler] didn’t care and he let me know what he thought.

“He explained how hard he had worked to help me and here I was not helping myself. He said I was just throwing it away. It was a real turning point.”

Another former Tech player who has just launched himself on the PGA Tour, Roberto Castro, explained how things work around Heppler’s program: “You don’t go out there with bad body language. You don’t tap in putts with one hand. You don’t go to class just to stay eligible. It’s all laid out what you’re supposed to do, and you’re going to do it.”

No excuses

There being few byes in life or on the PGA Tour, Heppler figures there should be few on his team. Before a majority of Tech’s tournaments, he has his players compete in intrasquad qualifying matches to determine the roster. Ranking or reputation count for nothing. The five who perform the best that week play, the others sit.

Such demands are meant to steel young players for what they might meet as pros. “Guys out here are still trying to learn at age 26, 27 what we learned in college,” Molder said.

Heppler’s techniques have not yet produced a national title for Tech. The Yellow Jackets have come close, a runner-up three times since Heppler arrived (and once more in 1993). They lost in the quarterfinals the last two years to eventual champion Augusta State.

“[A title] is what we’re after every year. It would be awesome but I don’t need one for affirmation,” Heppler said.

His golfers are more than the sum of their results, he’ll repeat as a refrain. And there is more to being a golf coach than watching from a distance, more than most would imagine.

NCAA golf tourney

Regionals: Thursday-Saturday

Finals: May 29-June 3 at The Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

TECH PLAYERS ON TOUR

● David Duval

● Stewart Cink

●Matt Kuchar

●Bryce Molder

●Cameron Tringale

●Troy Matteson

●Roberto Castro

●Briny Baird (transferred to Valdosta State)

●Paul Haley (Nationwide)

●Nicholas Thompson (Nationwide)

●Matt Weibring (Nationwide)

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