#TGW: The Future is Here

Tom Noonan hits the ceremonial first shot to officially open Georgia Tech's Noonan Golf Facility on Thursday as head coach Bruce Heppler tracks the flight of the ball.
Feb. 17, 2017

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

- I'd never seen Bruce Heppler cry before, as when the Georgia Tech golf coach was central to dedicating the nation's best college practice facility in the name of Tech graduates Tom and Kim Noonan, but he had good reason to become emotional.

He's so tough, giving players the bottom line for two decades on The Flats, never one to sugarcoat. Play well or you don't play; period, has long said the author of 11 of Tech's 16 ACC championship teams. And he's worked so hard.

He had a soft moment, though, on perfect, sun-splashed Thursday afternoon. His opus -- the Noonan Golf Facility -- came to life. More than 100 friends of the Tech golf program, as well as Tech staff and faculty and a passel of former players -- came to celebrate its official opening.

The assignment here was to write about how Tech players feel about the new facility, which is utterly remarkable, and how it will help.

I hope I do that here before readers check out, but I cannot stop myself from going on about Bruce Heppler.

Never in a 30-year career spanning the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, NCAA football and basketball, NASCAR and all other sports at every level have I come across a coach so connected with his or her constituency, flock and field.

Not even close. It's a field of zero beyond Heppler.

His players know it, too, even though he's has been on The Flats since 1995.

"We're inspired by you, coach, every day," junior James Clark said in a brief turn behind the microphone before several hundred supporters at the newly christened facility.

There are a lot of times where those guys despise Heppler.

He's tough, and he recruits well.


Thanks to Rob Felt of Georgia Tech Institute Communications for the photos in this gallery
 

 

As Tech president Dr. Bud Peterson said, "The NCAA's APR, the Academic Progress Report, has been in place since 2005, and every single year since 2005 the golf team has had a perfect score of 1000."

The story of this facility's birth is long, and much of it can be found here, but the here and now is about these Jackets and how they may benefit not only from the ability to hit balls from garages in the dead of winter, but having a facility where they can practice every shot imaginable practically in their back yard.

Now, there's Heppler's new baby.

"I think you can hit more individual shots here that you would see on a course," said junior Chris Petefish. "Before, it was just more of a wide-open piece of land of grass and range. Now, we have a lot more greens that you can hit more kinds of shots into and see how the ball reacts, and have competition with each other. "

Beyond the par-3 options, players can work on everything.

Professional teacher Jeff Pierce, who volunteers time to the Tech program in exchange for being allowed to use the facility and all the new video and technology equipment that he helped Heppler order to work with multiple PGA professionals, works with multiple pros -- and the Jackets.

It's all about how they can practice any and every shot to goals designed by professionals -- and Tech graduates -- Matt Kuchar, Stewart Cink, Roberto Castro and the Tom Fazio design group.

Kris Mikkelsen -- who was last seen chasing an UBER driver for his phone outside of McCamish Pavilion, and Carlton Forrester also have a lot to do with this, right down to the nuances of the false front on one of the practice greens.

The contributions of former Tech golfers are huge in this. Tech people give back.

"It came out even way better than we ever expected," said Castro. "Matt Kuchar and Kris Mikkelsen and I have hit balls out here, and just the different shots that you can hit ... it might be the best practice facility in the Southeast."

Forrester believes that Tech's new practice facility will help recruiting.

"Oh, I think so," he said. "I think you'll see ... it was a piece of land with a couple holes on it, but now you've got this clubhouse and just a spectacular facility that's going to attract alumni, players and ... I think for a college golfer, this is just a spectacular asset."

There's no way on any God's planet that the No. 1 athletic program on The Flats scores this remarkable, one-of-a-kind set-up without Heppler or the dozens of donors whom he marshalled for a $16 million project between 14th and 16th Streets in Midtown Atlanta. This is a multi-decade deal, spanning four athletic directors.

In a big tent sitting on what will be a parking area for the facility, marvelous moments abounded, right down to the refusal of Tech's golf coach to take a ceremonial shot, after Noonan (who along with his wife Kim -- both '83 graduates of Georgia Tech -- have driven this project).

How weird is that?

The golf coach doesn't golf.

Then again, Paul Johnson doesn't play football, nor does Danny Hall play baseball.

Tech president Dr. Bud Peterson and athletics director Todd Stansbury spoke Thursday before donors, but really this gets down to the student-athletes, and how they'll benefit.

The new, 13-acre compound carved out of a hole near the IKEA store, is not just a goat track, which it was for a long time.

There are seven greens, shaped bunkers and approaches, all built with golf architect Tom Fazio's firm at the helm and former players like Matt Kuchar, Roberto Castro, Mikkelsen and Forrester and others advising.

Add the fact that one of the world's top teaching pros, Jeff Pierce, is splitting time between working with professional golfers in south Florida, North Carolina and the new facility, and Tech has a gold mine.

Beyond the clubhouse, named for Stewart and Lisa Cink, which includes lockers, showers, a kitchen area, a washer and a dryer, a refrigerator, microwave, and large televisions everywhere, there is the business of technology.

Inside the Kuchar Teaching Center, which includes three hitting bays, one of which is can be used specifically for putting work, players and coaches have the ability to study their shots on video and with devices that monitor club head speed, weight on front foot vs. back foot, on toes vs. heels, club angle, ball velocity, and more.

Castro, a PGA Tour professional who lives close to campus, said he'll make the new facility his second home, especially since his coach -- Pierce -- is on hand. They worked together Thursday morning.

"I left my house at 8:30, and at 8:35 I'm here and I got a full morning of work in with him. It's a game changer," Castro said. "It's top-to-bottom. I'll continue to use it, hopefully, and it's a huge asset to anyone playing professionally.

"I still live in town, and if you spend a day here you're not going to leave this facility and say, `Well, if I had been at East Lake, or Golf Club of Georgia, I could've gotten X, Y or Z. It's amazing."