By CARTER CHEVES
In Georgia Tech Coach Bruce Heppler’s first season (1995-96), the Yellow Jackets finished dead last at the ACC Championship. In his second year they managed to beat one other team. In year three, Tech made a move to the runner-up position and in year four, the Ramblin’ Wreck won the ACC Championship.
Heppler and his nationally-ranked team heads to The Old North State Club at Uwharrie Point on April 22-24 for the 58th Annual ACC Men’s Golf Championship. They come in as a strong favorite to win the ACC crown for the third consecutive year and for the eighth time in Heppler’s 16-year career.
Not bad for a former certified public accountant, Heppler’s first job after graduating from Brigham Young in 1985. He found coaching more to his liking. He paid coaching dues at Amherst College (head-one year), UNLV (assistant-four years) and Oklahoma State (assistant-five years).
How did Heppler arrive in Atlanta?
Former Georgia Tech Athletic Director Homer Rice is responsible. Tech coach Puggy Blackmon, who had built a strong Tech program with players like David Duval and Stewart Cink, moved to become head coach at the University of South Carolina. The Wreck needed a new driver.
“I’d never been so nervous in my life,” remembers Heppler on his interview. “Mr. Rice said he had talked to 10 people in college golf circles about a new coach and that all 10 mentioned my name. I was stunned. He said the job is yours. Then he said he wanted me to spend the rest of the day interviewing Georgia Tech.”
While Heppler has done a fabulous job, the program was not downtrodden when he got there. Blackmon had won five ACC titles (1985, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994).
Go further back and you learn that Tech is the alma mater of Bobby Jones, the most famous golfer of all time. More history shows that former players Watts Gunn and Charlie Yates won NCAA Championships in 1927 and 1934, respectively
Heppler credits three ingredients that allowed Tech to become an elite program. Over the past 11 seasons, Tech has finished eighth or better at six NCAAs, with runnerup finishes in 2001, 2002 and 2005.
“The first domino that fell was a team membership to The Golf Club of Georgia,” says Heppler. “All of sudden we had immediate access to a home course for the first time.
“No. 2 was building an on-campus practice facility. There was 10 acres of land on the edge of campus that was used for a refuse dump. We had Tom Fazio design a practice facility there.
“In 1998, we filled a major gap that had been missing for too long. We re-established connection between East Lake Country Club (home of the PGA Tour Championship) and Georgia Tech. There’s too much tradition there with Bobby Jones, Charlie Yates, Watts Gunn and Charlie Harrison, four great amateur players who went to Georgia Tech.”
The improvements allowed Heppler to recruit Matt Kuchar, Bryce Molder and Troy Matteson. All are PGA Tour players now.
That brings us to the 2011 ACC Championship.
With two returning all-ACC players and both ranked among the Top 24 nationally in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, it’s easy to see why Georgia Tech heads to ONS a strong favorite.
James White has developed into one of the nation’s best players. With two victories already this year, White would like to add an ACC title to his resume. Senior John-Tyler Griffin from Wilson is having his best year to date.
Under 2010 ACC Coach of the Year Bowen Sargent Virginia has made three consecutive NCAA appearances. But what Sargent wants most is his school’s first-ever ACC title. Led by returning all-ACC players Ben Kohles (Cary) and Will Collins (Salisbury), Virginia could merit a title. The N.C. connection at UVA also includes Bruce Woodall of Yanceyville.
Watch out for N.C. State and precocious freshman Albin Choi. Coach Richard Sykes (40th year) has a squad that is primed for success. The Pack won two tournaments in the fall, and had two runner-up finishes.
Choi is a strong candidate for national freshman honors. He won two tournaments in the fall, and his scoring average is 71.2 through his first 21 career rounds.
After a decent fall, Duke may be hitting stride with its recent Callaway Collegiate Match Play victory. Duke swept through the bracket beating Texas, East Tennessee State, Southern Cal and Illinois. Coach Jamie Green has a lineup led by Brinson Paolini, the 2010 ACC Freshman of the Year.
Wake Forest is looking to get back to Wake Forest ways. Coach Jerry Haas has a relatively inexperienced squad. At the top of the lineup however, the Deacs are strong with junior Lee Bedford from Cary and sophomore Evan Beck. Bedford is a returning all-ACC player with one victory this year.
Larry Penley’s Clemson Tigers may be on the prowl after their recent Furman Intercollegiate victory. Up until then it had been a so-so season by Clemson standards. The Tigers are still ranked among the nation’s top 30 teams.
Virginia Tech is just four years removed from winning an ACC title. No one should ever forget their stirring finish to tie Georgia Tech for the 2007 championship. It came just six days after a gunman massacred 32 students on the Virginia Tech campus.
Florida State cannot be discounted at ONS. They slipped into Uwharrie Point in 2008 and captured the ACC crown. Brooks Koepka, the 2010 ACC Co-Player of the Year, headlines the FSU lineup.
The loss of Jack Fields at mid-season has left UNC stunned. Fields turned pro, taking a 71.2 stroke average out of Coach John Inman’s lineup. Raleigh seniors Henry Zaytoun and Kevin O’Connell, and sophomore Michael McGowan of Southern Pines, provide enough talent to make the Heels dangerous.