Case Study

One of collegiate golf's great leaders

Words by
John Boykin
One of collegiate golf's great leaders

Bruce Heppler is regarded as one of the best men's college golf coaches of all time. As he enters his 28th year at the helm of the super successful men's golf program at The Georgia Institute of Technology, aka Georgia Tech, his accomplishments in that time speak for themselves: National Men's Coach of the Year in 2002; Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Coach of the Year 10 times; 13 ACC Championships; qualified for 23 NCAA Regional Championships, won four of those; 18 NCAA Final tournament appearances, second on three occasions; 70 men's collegiate tournament wins. 

As an assistant coach Bruce was on the staff at Oklahoma State when the Cowboys won the 1995 NCAA National Championship. He's coached three US Amateur Champions and three of Bruce's players have been named national college player of the year. Twenty-eight GA Tech golfers have been named to the prestigious All-American team on Bruce's watch. He's been named head coach of two Palmer Cup teams and had numerous Tech players members of the US Walker Cup teams. The list goes on.

It was at tiny Amherst College that Bruce found his calling. After two years as an assistant coach at University of Nevada/Las Vegas and four at Oklahoma State, he was named the head men's coach at GA Tech in June of 1995. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Last year, Bruce was inducted into the College Golf Coaches Association of America. Earlier this month, he was inducted into the Georgia State Golf Hall Fame alongside  the great Bobby Jones, Masters Champions Tommy Aaron and Larry Mize, Open Champion Stewart Cink and Davis Love Ill, among many others. 

Shortly before that memorable evening, John Boykin, PGA, Clippd Senior US PGA member, sat down with Coach Heppler in his office on the Georgia Tech campus to talk about his career, his philosophy, his great teams and players, and Clippd. 

Bruce (top left) with the title-winning Oklahoma State team

What drew you to the college coaching profession? 

Bruce Heppler: Well, I was in graduate school working to get a Masters in sports administration so that I could be in administration. The golf coach at Amherst College, Tracy Mehr, went on sabbatical, which doesn't happen anymore. It was a small Division 3 school and he came over to UMass where I was making $52.63 a week working in the Intramural office, and he said, "Anybody over here know anything about golf and want to coach the men's and women's teams for a year at Amherst College for $1,000 apiece?' My hand went up immediately and that experience, working with the young people, was really pretty incredible. 

I've seen a bit of a movement to ‘less is more’ and I don't think that's how you're successful in life

I ended up at Las Vegas working in administration and Coach [Dwaine] Knight was hired from New Mexico to really create something in Las Vegas college-wise. He came down the hall and offered me a job to leave administration and do that... It took about five seconds to decide to leave athletic administration and be around the young people. It really started with that experience at Amherst College. 

What are the biggest challenges you face in your position? 

We know some people will say it's the greatest job ever, to coach golf. I'm very much a control freak. To know that my livelihood depends on the choices that young people are making when they pick a college, and then the choices they make on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night once they get to college, that's challenging. I think the world is evolving. Young people are changing. I've seen a bit of a movement to "less is more" and I don't think that's how you're successful in life. Young people leaving high schools and doing online [education] so they can practice more. I don't think they need to practice more, I think there are enough hours in a day. I guess it’s a general mode in society of not wanting to do hard things and in my estimation of being successful, that's not really a key to success. 

Bruce is always on hand for his players, even for yardages!

How has college golf changed in your 35 years as a coach and in the 27 years at Georgia Tech?

Well, when I started it had been pretty much a closed circle. The NCAA consisted of 30 teams that were invited basically from different parts of the country. In ‘88 and ‘89, that was when regionals really began. All of a sudden you went from 30 teams being selected to go to the postseason to 81 and all of a sudden people thought they had a chance. And that year at UNLV... we would not have been invited to that original 30, I don't think. We went to El Paso and played really well and got to a regional and went to the NCAA at Oak Tree.

I think that switch from 30 to 81 has caused the game to grow immensely. At the time, there was only one coach allowed to coach and do everything… For Coach Knight, I was really the first full-time raise money and recruit guy in college. It's the copycat syndrome and before you know it, everybody now has a really good assistant. When they leave to take a job, they know what to do. I think the addition of a second coach gaining all of that experience and the expansion of that post-season have created more great coaches and more great programs than ever before. And there are more great opportunities for young people to play college golf than ever before. 

When you arrived at Tech in 1995, what were your challenges and immediate goals?

When I got here, the biggest problem was we didn't have a home. To call around to wonderful clubs where people are paying $50-75,000 a year to join and it's a Thursday afternoon and I'm, 'Hey, can I get 15 guys on?' – that just wasn't going to work. The facility was really, I think, the biggest problem. So we started the search and through the course of time we were able to gain a membership at the Golf Club of Georgia, which was a tremendous gift for us. Jeff Paton had been the junior golf director of the Athletic Club and thought it would be a great situation for some young guys to be part of that club and [the owner] Mr. Yamazaki permitted that. That really kind of got things started.

And then East Lake went through the renovation and Mr Charlie and Mr Dan Yates pushed and pushed and pushed and finally [the owner] Mr Cousins said, "That'd be great". And so that was accomplished. I had driven around campus and noticed some property next to the softball field and found out it belonged to the Georgia Tech Foundation. I asked them if we could redo that and we've hit balls there ever since. Then we had the major re-do there three or four years ago. So I think facilities were probably the biggest problem.

I decided the NCAA title was the goal. It had not been done here, still hasn't... But at the same time it's more than that.

Unfortunately, I guess, for the previous seven years I had laid my head down at night and heard ‘One Shining Moment’ from the basketball tournament. I decided the NCAA title was the goal. It had not been done here, still hasn't and I have worked towards trying to do that. But at the same time it's more than that.

Not everyone goes to National Finals, that's one week a year. There are all of those things that are not really controllable. We shot the lowest score ever and didn't win. So, really the goal has been to win at every day – with how we treat our players and the things that they're involved with from academics to golf. Those are things that you can control. It's to try to provide the best academic and athletic experience that anyone could have in the country. That is really the goal that we start with every day.

GA Tech is steeped in golf history, from Bobby Jones to Larry Mize to Stewart Cink to those you've coached, like David Duval, US Amateur champions Matt Kuchar, Andy Ogletree and Tyler Strafaci. Much of that history has been made on your watch. What is the significance of that history to you? 

Maybe we'll have an answer for that when we finally walk away from the whole thing. I guess the significance for me is just the opportunity I've had to watch young people's dreams come true. I'm not counting stuff because again, in my mind, I have so little to do with the ultimate outcome. I've never hit a shot here. It's [the players] that have created all of this. I probably will sit back with some satisfaction and some pride when it's all said and done, but I don't really think about that very much. It's really the guys' accomplishments that are to be admired and appreciated.

Andy Ogletree (right) is one of Bruce's US Amateur-winning students

As you view the landscape of college golf, what are the personality traits required to be a successful coach? 

Well, I think you have to have some kind of gregarious personality. You've got to out-recruit other people, you've got to be able to build relationships in that process. I think going forward with the rule changes, and more and more money being permitted to go to the student athletes, that you're going to have to be able to raise money, whatever that skill set is... Maybe it's just having great donors. I think it’s the ability to raise money and to continue to find and locate and identify young people.

When I first started, you could probably go to an AJGA event or any other junior event and walk down the row of kids playing and go, ‘Well, those 70 guys don't really have a chance, let's go recruit these other 10 players'. Because of the expansion of the AJGA... and the opportunities that are now available to juniors, it's just exploded. You can now walk down the range and you can't figure out who to recruit. You just see better fundamentals. The difference between the 10th ranked guy and the 150th ranked guy I think has closed significantly.

So maybe if you can somehow be a better evaluator than the other guy, although it's pretty hard to do when we're making decisions two years ahead of time… A lot can change for a young man. Raising money, being able to work within the community to find places to play for your team, I think those are really important.

Being able to evaluate effectively during recruitment is vital to the success of a college coach

Have the qualities or strengths you look for in a player changed over the years? 

No. You know, a lot of times people ask me, 'Why do guys improve or not improve in college?' I think the underlying factor is whether they love the game or not. You see many young people whose experiences as a high school player or even younger are mom and dad taking him to the golf course. They play and they practice and then they become part of their social thing. Now Dad has spent $80,000 the last three years for them to go play junior golf and now it's time and they have to go to college. They have to play college golf and we have to get a scholarship.

All of a sudden, the young man or young woman has never really been in charge of the decisions of what they do and when they do them, they go off to college and we have a 20-hour limit. It's a lot less than mom and dad or others being in charge of that time. And then they leave college and now nobody's telling them what to do...

For me, the one element is to try to somehow figure out who loves golf. In my life, I found something that I enjoy and it's been a joy every day. I've never considered this a day of work in my life... If you can somehow identify that one key thing – that there is no place they would rather be – you've got somebody here who will improve and get better.

To have a front row seat to a young person's dreams and goals, to watch someone win a US Am, to watch someone actually receive a PGA Tour card, that's pretty awesome

What part of this job gives you the greatest satisfaction? 

Dreams coming true. To have a front row seat to a young person's dreams and goals, to watch someone win a US Am, to watch someone actually receive a PGA Tour card, you know, that's pretty awesome... Or to see somebody start their own hedge fund firm. It's both of those things... Everybody has their golf dream, I guess, but that's not where everybody ends up. But to see the success of some of our guys who are members at Seminole or Pine Valley or running their own company, that's pretty awesome to have a front row seat to that as well. 

What's the best piece of advice you've been given? 

Don't lead from the rear! 

Arguably, 2002 has been your most successful year at GA Tech – a program record seven tournament wins, second in the NCAA, Troy Matteson became third GA Tech golfer to win the NCAA individual title, five players named All-Americans, you are named ACC and National Coach of the Year. What made that team so successful? 

It was pretty fascinating. We had older guys and younger guys – and some brash younger guys. There had been a lot of smack talk and conversations and we weren’t really gelling as a group. They didn't like each other. I remember sitting at the tournament at Hilton Head, which was the last event of the fall, and we just had a meeting. I said, ‘We're going to like each other and we're going to like everything we do. And every time we walk into a restaurant, this is going to be the best hamburger I've ever had, the best spaghetti dinner.’ I said, ‘You need to figure out what a good team-mate is. You didn't come here to find a team-mate to be your best man at your wedding. A good teammate is someone who goes to class, does their schoolwork and practices all day long. Their life is uncluttered so they can play as good as they can play. And we got five of them right here and y'all all need to figure out what that is. You didn't come here to make best friends.’

All of a sudden, the next two days, it was unbelievable. We ran away with it and we didn't lose another tournament in the spring until we got to the last round of the NCAA leading and didn't win. But I think it was just a conversation of let's find some grace for each other. Everybody's different... Let's just basically make the decision that everything that happens from this moment on is the best moment we’ve ever had.

Getting along as teammates and playing for each other are key ingredients to success

Are there other teams, specific players or years that have particular significance to you? 

We didn't get off to a great start with David [Duval] and Stewart [Cink] gone, but there was a team of seven guys when we lost in the playoff at Auburn. We left Kris Mikkelsen at home, who could have played for anybody, and we left Wes Latimer home. But in that group, you've got Bryce Molder and Matt Kuchar. And there's only one National Player of the Year, there's only one ACC Player of the Year.

I guess through just my constant badgering, for that group it became about Oklahoma State, Clemson and Georgia. And I think if you look at a couple of years there, it's Oklahoma, Clemson, Georgia or us. If we played in an event, no one else won it. There were no names on the shirts. It didn't matter what position you played, it was just about Georgia Tech Golf beating those three or four golf programs. It probably became as much of a team as you can have in an individual sport. It was just drive the van and let's go. They were focussed on 'we not me' and it was pretty special. So that's one team for certain.

A good teammate is someone who goes to class, does their schoolwork and practices all day long. Their life is uncluttered so they can play as good as they can play

What advice would you give to young golfers who have their sights on playing college golf? 

First of all, make sure it's your dream. And play a lot... One of the things that we've tried to do before they leave is create a scenario where golf is what they do, it's not who they are... They're not defined by a bad round or a bad tournament because they achieve in other areas of their lives. Becoming one dimensional is not the answer.

You're an early adopter and advocate of Clippd. What does the technology give you that makes a difference? 

Part of the challenge of coaching, and especially in this sport, is to learn early on that pointing out weaknesses isn't the answer. It just creates more anxiety. So to have a programme that [allows the players to] examine themselves – all of the detail and shot values and the statistics and all that goes into that, and then the ability to record through history the activities that you were involved with when things were going great and when they're not, I think that's really critical. To have some self-evaluation, so that it's not me talking about 'You need to drive the ball better'. That just creates issues.

[Clippd] is set up so that it's very easy to use. The displays are very simple. For me, it's the coach, it's not the coach. Numbers don't lie and they're there. But I think to have them be engaged and want to own something – it's their information, it's their future – it makes a huge difference. For them to evaluate themselves versus being evaluated by somebody else who they think is deciding who goes… it's really, really valuable. 

What do you see when you view a Clippd profile for one of your team members? 

One of the most fascinating things is... some guys are really good at something and you say, 'Well, how about working on these other things?' There is the importance factor [in Clippd]... and that one thing is your superpower. It's really a new concept to me. If that's not good, you can work on all this other stuff and it doesn't matter. It's amazing... as you analyse what you think their superpower is and what the Artificial Intelligence tells you that it is. You don't see it all. I don't watch every shot, every round, but [Clippd] takes in everything and gives you a much clearer picture of what they're doing and how they're doing it. 

On October 7th you were inducted into the Georgia State Golf Hall of Fame. What were your emotions when you got the call and now that has had time to sink in, what are your thoughts about this richly deserved honour? 

Well, you know, you don't start out to end up in things. Quite frankly, the fact that it's this state's Golf Hall of Fame is, for me, way different. You just go back from the start of the Masters and Mr. Jones and then obviously to know that people who played a huge role in my development here, and in my life in Charlie and Dan Yates and those others who are Georgia Tech people. I think this state is special when it comes to golf. To be part of that Hall of Fame probably is the reason why it's as meaningful as it is.

It's certainly a players’ award. You don't get there without good players and the success of everybody around you. The money that has been donated and raised, I think now... it's almost $26 or $27 million for our golf programs since I got here. That's to join East Lake, to build a practice facility, to have the kids travel the way we do and play in those tournaments. So a lot of other people have had a lot to do with [this award]. The great thing is some of them are in the Hall of Fame, so from that standpoint, it's very meaningful.

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