Opportunity opens for Georgia Tech golf, Bruce Heppler for first NCAA title

Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler (left) confers with team member Christo Lamprecht at the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate tournament at Golf Club of Georgia in Alpharetta Oct. 22, 2022. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler (left) confers with team member Christo Lamprecht at the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate tournament at Golf Club of Georgia in Alpharetta Oct. 22, 2022. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Taking a break from practice earlier this month at Georgia Tech’s splendid golf practice facility, Christo Lamprecht spoke for the team. As the Yellow Jackets were preparing for their date in their NCAA golf regional, they brought particular motivation to their efforts – coach Bruce Heppler.

“Coach has been here 28 years, and I don’t think I’ve told him this yet, but I think every single guy on this team wants to give him a national championship,” Lamprecht said. “That’s probably the only accolade he has not yet gotten quite yet on his amazing Hall of Fame résumé, but we would like to give him one before he retires in about four or five years.”

Tech players have shared the sentiment before – to win an NCAA championship for Heppler. It really is about the only accomplishment missing in a truly remarkable career. In 28 years, he has led Tech to 72 tournament titles, 14 ACC titles and 19 NCAA finals appearances.

Tech will begin play at the NCAA finals Friday at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, having recently made contributions to the ledger. After not having won once during the regular season – though finishing second five times – the Jackets won the ACC title and their NCAA regional, both in commanding fashion.

Tech has made it into the NCAA regional field for the past 25 seasons (not counting the canceled 2020 season) and has finished in the top eight at the NCAA Championship 11 times, including three years as runner-up. He has coached three U.S. Amateur champions.

“I think when you set really high expectations every day, every year, and you get close to those, then you turn out with some pretty good results, and I think that would be the description of our program,” Heppler said Tuesday. “Consistency from year to year, and it’s not up and down because this is what Georgia Tech golf is supposed to be all about.”

The part that Lamprecht referenced about a retirement looming in the distance, that might be fresh ground. It’s not a shocker – Heppler turned 63 in March – but he has been the pillar of arguably the most consistently excellent program in Tech’s history, regardless of sport. Heppler didn’t deny the reality – though he spoke with less certainty than Lamprecht about the timing – but typically was self-deprecating.

“They see the old fart walking around, and they’re not sure how long he can do it,” Heppler said.

To this point, the original O.F. has done quite well, and the golf team’s performance stands out sharply against what other Jackets teams have done. Since joining the ACC in 1978, overall Tech teams have won or shared 46 conference championships. Heppler’s teams are responsible for 14 of them. Framed more equitably, Jackets teams have won 34 conference championships since Heppler was hired in 1995, and Heppler’s crew has accounted for 41% of them.

And perhaps most convincingly, in the past 10 academic years, Tech teams have won seven conference championships, with five provided from the golf program.

The Jackets begin the NCAA championship with ample reason for confidence. At the ACC tournament, they finished the three-round stroke-play portion of the event in first by 16 shots, competition that includes four teams that also made it to the 30-team NCAA championship. At the NCAA regional, Tech obliterated The Cliffs at Keowee Falls course in Salem, South Carolina. The Jackets won at 53 under par, a team record for an NCAA regional and the third lowest score in relation to par in any tournament in team history.

“If they didn’t have (confidence) or were wondering (if they could win the national championship), I think that’s probably been eliminated” by the performance at the past two events, Heppler said.

Tech has two players ranked in Golfstat’s top 15 in Division I – Lamprecht and Ross Steelman – and Connor Howe is No. 36. Freshman Hiroshi Tai has won two events this season and was second at the ACC Tournament.

Heppler expressed greater confidence in this group than the outfits that made it to the NCAA finals the past two years, also at Grayhawk. Those teams took 15th and tied for 12th, out of the running for a top-eight finish to get into the match-play portion of the event. (The format is four rounds of stroke play followed by match play.)

“We’re way deeper than we’ve been out here the last two years and really, probably for several years, truthfully,” Heppler said.

It’s probably the golf team’s best shot at its first-ever national championship (and the athletic department’s second ever in a championship administered by the NCAA, following the women’s tennis title in 2007) since 2014. With the years on Heppler’s tenure limited, it might also be his last best shot. Heppler estimates there are between eight to 12 teams in the field capable of winning it. Is Tech one of them?

“I think so,” he said.

Heppler said he doesn’t have a particular endpoint in mind for the completion of his career. He has particularly enjoyed this team, as much for its selfless approach as the results. He’s in no hurry to leave, but also doesn’t want to stay too long.

“You just see things that don’t end well other places,” he said. “I’ve told the former players that I’ll be gone long before you’re going to have a meeting with (athletic director) J Batt that it’s time for Bruce to go. I’m not going to stay longer than makes sense.”

Given the perennial success, it’s hard to envision that day coming. But, Heppler evidently is not going to let it happen anyway.

“I’ve worked really hard to try to establish a wonderful place,” Heppler said. “When coach Bruce isn’t the guy to keep it that way, then whether that’s a year from now or six years from now, then that’s going to be the time.”

Heppler has made preparations for his successor. The team’s 4.5 scholarships are paid for by an endowment of about $7 million, a sum so large that it generates a surplus. For a department that typically struggles to break even, Heppler’s fundraising has been an undeniable asset.

Said Heppler, “I can’t sell any season tickets, but I can do my part on trying to generate revenue for the department in whatever way we can.”

He would like to try to endow the salary for his head-coaching position.

“So no matter what, they can have a great head coach and compensate him at a level that makes sense,” Heppler said. “That’s kind of maybe my last hurrah, is to see if we can’t get something like that done.”

Beyond that, Heppler’s players have maintained a perfect graduation rate (as measured by the NCAA). In 2018, the Tech alumni association gave Heppler the rare honor of making him an honorary alumnus, a prize more often given to professors, administrators and donors. Former athletic director Homer Rice perhaps was most recognized for his acumen in hiring coaches. Tech greats Bobby Cremins, Bobby Ross, George O’Leary and Danny Hall are perhaps the four most recognized. Heppler lacks the national championship won by Ross for the football team in 1990, but beyond that, given his longevity and consistent high rate of success, it’s hard to argue that Heppler wasn’t Rice’s top coaching hire.

However much he might aspire to his players the satisfaction of presenting him with the one trophy missing in the Tech trophy case, Heppler downplays it. He didn’t get into the business for the hardware or to have a personal legacy, he said.

“It’s just great to be around young people and watch them have their dreams come true,” he said. “That’s really the whole point of the whole matter anyway – to see guys win U.S. Ams and those kind of things. That’s really enough. To be along for the ride is plenty for me.”

Lamprecht and teammates aim for a particularly scenic ride in the desert.