College golf coaches live a life in which most of the stress is constantly out of their control. Even so, 15 minutes during the recent U.S. Amateur at Bandon Dunes rate among the most stressful of Bruce Heppler’s career.
It wasn’t any of the four consecutive matches that Georgia Tech’s Tyler Strafaci had come down to the final hole all square. Heppler has been conditioned to deal with those familiar nerves in 25 seasons at the Yellow Jackets helm. His biggest concern was waiting for the results of a mandatory COVID-19 test to determine whether he’d made an overnight cross-country trek in vain or if he’d get the chance to support his senior in the most important round of his golf career.
“They put me in a room with a 15-minute shot clock with a result that’s going to change the next two weeks of my life,” Heppler said. “That 11-hour trip was nothing compared to those 15 minutes.”
It started after finishing a televised Zoom call during Strafaci’s semifinal match against Aman Gupta. Heppler’s only chance to make it to Bandon in time for the 36-hole final was a 9 p.m. flight out of Atlanta, Georgia, to Portland, Oregon. Strafaci was comfortably 4 up on the back nine when Heppler boarded the plane. His flight was somewhere over Oklahoma when Strafaci lost his entire 4-up lead in five holes before Gupta’s comeback fizzled on the 18th hole. The coach landed, grabbed a car and made the four-and-a-half hour nighttime drive to the Bandon coast. He had time for a two-hour nap before going to the course for the 36-hole final.
The only remaining hurdle was a mandatory COVID test to be allowed inside the USGA bubble. If the test came back positive, he not only would not be allowed on the course, but he faced a 14-day quarantine.
“For Coach to come all this way really shows how much he cares about people. That just shows what kind of a person he is.” – Tyler Strafaci
“I’ve not thought this through,” Heppler said. “If I test positive, I have to spend two weeks in Oregon with school starting or drive all the way home to Georgia. I’m not sure I want to take this test now.”
Heppler, 60, passed the test. Thirty-six holes later, so did Strafaci with the shot of his life on the final par-5 to make the U.S. Amateur-clinching birdie against Ollie Osborne.
“For Coach to come all this way really shows how much he cares about people,” Strafaci said, labeling “insane” his coach’s overnight odyssey to be by his side. “That just shows what kind of a person he is. I gained a lot of respect for him. I don’t know if I would have won if he wasn’t here. … I’ll forever be thankful to him for coming and showing his support and being a badass out there.”
Said Heppler: “I saw a guy have his dream come true and when that stuff is going on you don’t get tired. I wasn’t gonna miss this one for the world. When guys have a chance to go to other schools and choose you over those other guys, it just means something. It creates an intense loyalty.”
Strafaci follows classmate Andy Ogletree to bring back-to-back Havemeyer Trophies home to Georgia Tech. Along with Matt Kuchar’s triumph in 1997, Heppler joined former Florida coach Buster Bishop (Bob Murphy 1965, Steve Melnyk 1969, Fred Ridley 1975) as the only collegiate coaches to have three players win the U.S. Amateur.
“How about that, Coach?” Strafaci said of the feat.
“It’s a good club to join,” Heppler said. “It’s why you do the job. … When you have a chance and somebody has one of their dreams come true, it’s pretty spectacular and why you get up every morning to go to work.”
• • •
A career of mentoring champions seemed an improbable path for Heppler. His 25-year-old self could not possibly have envisioned any kind of future in golf. The game was a luxury he could only afford growing up by picking balls on the range or being part of a team. His competitive experience consisted of one season at Dixie Junior College in his hometown of St. George, Utah. Shortly after he returned from a two-year Mormon mission to South Africa, Dixie’s golf program was eliminated.
“And that was really the end of my career,” said Heppler, who hasn’t played even a recreational round of golf since shooting 86 at Augusta National in 2008.
Being a practical young man, Heppler opted for an accounting degree at Brigham Young. Upon graduation, he got married and was interning at a Salt Lake City accounting firm while studying to take the CPA exam. He was staring at a professional life of certified unfulfillment.
“I just really disliked doing taxes and working 80 hours a week,” he said.
Heppler liked the idea of getting into sports administration, but he didn’t know anybody in the old-boys network to get the necessary foot in the door. So, after passing his CPA exam, he and his wife, Traci, packed up their car and headed to University of Massachusetts so he could get a master’s degree in sports management. He worked in the school’s intramural office for $52.63 a week while Traci was a school teacher.
Then came his break. The golf coach at Division III Amherst College across town was taking a sabbatical, so he walked into the UMass master’s program and asked if anybody had a background in golf and wanted to make $1,000 to take care of his men’s and women’s teams for a year. Heppler raised his hand.
“I really liked that,” he said. “All of a sudden you’re having relationships with young people and you’re not stuck in an office.”
With the option of writing a thesis or completing an internship to finish his degree, Heppler decided the paper wouldn’t do him much good and accepted his advisor’s recommendation to work in game management at UNLV. Another cross-country move had him passing out “Tark the Shark” towels and operating fireworks in the midst of the glory days of Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels basketball team.
Opportunity knocked again. UNLV wanted to overhaul a moribund golf program, and during a coaching search Heppler offered to take the team to fall tournaments. When future Hall of Fame coach Dwaine Knight was hired, Heppler stayed on to help raise money and recruit. The next season, Knight insisted they hire him as a full-time assistant.
Suddenly Heppler was in the network. When Mike Holder at powerhouse Oklahoma State was building Karsten Creek, he called Heppler and asked him to join his staff.
“With Dwaine Knight on my résumé and Mike Holder on my résumé, maybe I’ll get a job someday,” Heppler thought. “Spent four years in Stillwater, Oklahoma, won NCAA in 1995 and (Georgia Tech athletics director) Homer Rice called and off to Atlanta we came. Right place, right time, right people. Very blessed.”
• • •
Georgia Tech already had a rich golf history going back to the legendary Bobby Jones, with three other major champions along the way (Larry Mize, David Duval and Stewart Cink).
In 25 years since taking over from Puggy Blackmon, however, Heppler has built the program into a consistent national power – winning a record 10 of the last 14 Atlantic Coast Conference championships and reaching the NCAA finals 17 times in 22 consecutive championship appearances. He’s produced three U.S. Amateur champions (Kuchar was his first commitment), one NCAA individual champion (Troy Matteson 2002) and three collegiate players of the year (Kuchar, Bryce Molder and Matteson). Twenty-three of his players have reached the professional ranks, including six winners on the PGA Tour and 12 current PGA Tour or Korn Ferry Tour members.
The only thing really missing from his résumé is an NCAA team title. Georgia Tech has finished runner-up three times on his watch and was a favorite last spring before the pandemic scuttled the postseason chance for a senior class that included Ogletree, Strafaci and Luke Schniederjans.
“It’s certainly one of the three or four best teams we’ve ever had,” he said. “It was unfortunate to have that cut short when we were ranked as high as we were and had four wins already that year. They were headed to hopefully having a really great postseason and didn’t get to have that. They’ve obviously gotten over their disappointment and had a really nice summer.”
The most painful Georgia Tech near-miss came in 2000 when the Jackets set the NCAA scoring record but lost in a playoff after Oklahoma State’s Charles Howell III got up-and-down on the last hole to shatter the individual scoring record by six strokes. Heppler had helped recruit Howell to OSU and came close to flipping him to stay in state after taking the Georgia Tech job.
“The reality is I can’t guard anybody or tackle anybody and can’t stop Charles from shooting 23-under or whatever it was,” Heppler said. “I try to put my time into what matters and what I can control.
“People asked me if (winning NCAA team title) doesn’t happen before I’m done will I feel like something’s missing? I don’t feel that way. I maybe did for a while. We try to win the national championship every day. We graduate our players and they go off and either play golf really well or get a job and do really well. So those are things you can control.”
“It’s as good as any place in America. We make it work. There’s nothing you can accomplish in golf that hasn’t been done here.” – Bruce Heppler
Heppler isn’t a swing coach for his players, though he often serves as a second set of eyes in the absence of their individual instructors. His coaching involves more sports psychology and management – building self-esteem, proper practice/conditioning habits and accountability. His humility and loyalty serve as the ultimate example for them.
“There’s a lot of nonsense and paperwork and disappointments in the mentoring process,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t want to get there as fast as you want them to. They’re young people and nobody’s perfect. You worry about grades and worry about personal choices and so on.”
His unpretentious style keeps drawing elite recruits to Atlanta despite unique challenges that include not having an on-campus golf course. The Jackets have playing privileges at East Lake and Golf Club of Georgia – each a hike from campus in a congested major city. A few years ago, the school spent $16 million converting 13 acres wedged between apartments and condominium complexes in Atlantic Station into a state-of-the-art Noonan Golf Facility with hitting bays, bunkers and par-3 course with three different types of grasses.
“It’s as good as any place in America,” Heppler said. “We make it work. There’s nothing you can accomplish in golf that hasn’t been done here.”
The same loyalty and faith that sent Heppler across the country during a pandemic to be present for Strafaci’s biggest moment is what has kept him at Georgia Tech despite any enticing offers that come his way.
“Why leave when you’re at a place that supports you inside and outside and your players are having some success?” he said. “I always thought it would be a unique opportunity to be a head coach at just one place. If I would have left somewhere, my relationship with Matt Kuchar and Bryce Molder and Andy Ogletree changes because I’m somewhere else. Right now, we have Georgia Tech in common and I feel very blessed that will hopefully stay the situation.”
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