Before Vanderbilt takes to the road and hits the links, it must prove itself at home.
So prior to every men’s golf tournament this season, coach Scott Limbaugh holds a qualifying tournament.
Teeing off at various local courses from Vanderbilt Legends Club, to Richland Country Club to Belle Meade Country Club to Golf Club of Tennessee, the Commodores play three to five rounds. As many as four tournament spots are up for grabs.
“Not really being super comfortable with your spot in the lineup makes sure we do not breed an attitude of complacency in our golf program,” sophomore Hunter Stewart said.
Using an exemption policy similar to the PGA Tour’s, Limbaugh also rewards regular-season tournament play. Win an individual title, receive a qualifying tournament exemption. Finish in the top five, receive an exemption.
As a result, only twice has Vanderbilt trotted out the same five-golfer lineup. All 11 players have posted at least three rounds and just Stewart and junior Charlie Ewing have played all 29.
“Things are earned,” Limbaugh said. “Everybody has the opportunity to qualify. I think you have to be able to reward good play at home. The kind of program I want to have is a program that a guy who is doing all the right things … he needs to feel there is always light at the end of the tunnel.”
The light is shining brightly on the men’s golf program in Limbaugh’s first year as head coach.
The Commodores have won a school-record three tournaments and placed second in two others. Entering the Southeastern Conference Championships on Friday in Sea Island, Ga., they are on track to qualify as a team for an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2010.
“They’ve created opportunities for themselves with postseason play and on into NCAA postseason and I’m proud as heck of them for doing that,” Limbaugh said. “There are not many people that thought — outside of our little family — that believed in that. They’ve been able to create those opportunities and they’ve been able to do that with a chip on their shoulders. That’s exciting for me to be able to see young people do those things.”
Limbaugh arrived last June with a winning background. He won two national championships as a junior college golfer in his ntive Alabama. In his first head coaching job, he led Division III Huntingdon (Ala.) to three straight national tournaments. He spent the last five years at the University of Alabama, where he was the top assistant and recruiting coordinator.
The Crimson Tide reached four NCAA Championships and finished as the national champion runner-up last year. In addition, he also recruited six All-Americans. But he can’t take any credit for recruiting any of the current Vanderbilt team. All 11 players, including four freshmen, were already intact.
“There are just some guys who needed to be motivated a little bit and needed to be shown the way,” Limbaugh said.
In 2011-12, the Commodores never finished higher than third as a team. This season, they’ve exceeded that mark five times and have compiled 11 top-10 finishes.
Stewart claimed the individual title at the Samford Intercollegiate last month. The Lexington, Ky., native has finished in the top five four times. But more than his individual growth he has witnessed a transformation throughout the program.
“We’re just a lot more positive team and just really gelled this year,” Stewart said. “The other thing is the constant attention to detail and just having the mindset for greatness and dominating every day. We’re not getting too focused on big picture stuff and what tournaments we’re going to win and whether we’re going to make it to regionals or not. I think that is one thing coach Limbaugh has changed and that is one of the reasons we’ve been successful.”
Limbaugh also brought a sense of accountability.
Vanderbilt last reached the NCAA Championship in 2007 and has gone four times total — all since 2002. But Limbaugh refuses to bring up the past with his current team. Instead, he challenges them to shoot for excellence “everything they do,” ranging from the classroom, the community and the golf course.
He requires his team to exert their best every day, every tournament and especially every practice. If not, he’ll find someone else who will.
“I think when you have to constantly compete for your spot you don’t really have the opportunity to let your guard down,” Stewart said. “If you do let your guard down you end up getting bumped out of the lineup. Bringing it every day and bringing it every qualifier is something that has been beneficial to me and the team.”