The Vanderbilt men’s golf team won the program’s second SEC match play championship on Sunday afternoon, after defeating the defending champion Arkansas Razorbacks 3-2-0 in a matchup that went down to the wire at the Seaside Course at the Sea Island Golf Club in Georgia.
With six teams ranked in the top-25 heading into the tournament, the SEC is lauded as the nation’s most competitive golf conference. Still, the Commodores were able to achieve what they had set out to do.
“The SEC has been real tight all year, so we were just trying to send a message that we were the best team there,” senior Harrison Ott said.
Throughout the 2020-21 regular season, Vanderbilt was able to play well consistently despite elite competition, finishing fourth or better in all but two of their eight competitions.
Coming into the event, men’s golf head coach Scott Limbaugh told the team that no major adjustments were necessary. That they had to focus “on the right things,” he said, and that the goal was to advance to match play.
After three days of stroke play from April 21 to April 23, only the top eight teams would advance to the match play rounds. Vanderbilt went into the tournament with a lineup consisting of Ott, junior Reid Davenport, sophomores William Moll and Matthew Riedel, and freshman Cole Sherwood, with junior Michael Shears as a substitute.
The team finished the week in sixth place at +13, which meant that they had accomplished their initial goal.
“We played good in stroke play,” Coach Limbaugh said. “It wasn’t great, but it was good enough.”
While the team felt that it could have played better, their final day of stroke play was an improvement from the previous one, which helped the players’ confidence.
“That gave all of us good momentum. Everyone felt like they were heading in the right direction,” Ott said. “I knew, this whole year, that we had a really good match-play playing team. I had a pretty good feeling we’d be able to get three victories.”
On Saturday, the Commodores had their first match against rival Tennessee. While the squad was down early—the team’s starting player, Ott, was down three scores after just six holes—the senior patiently came back and won by three strokes himself.
“[Ott’s] match changed the script on the whole match against Tennessee,” Coach Limbaugh said. “I was just super proud of Harrison and how he showed up and played closer to his potential, all through match play.”
Originally planned for Saturday afternoon, a weather delay forced the semifinals to be moved to early Sunday morning, as the Commodores faced No. 2 seed Alabama.
In the quarterfinals, Sherwood was the only player who lost his matchup, just one day after completing his best finish—tied for fifth amongst all competitors in stroke play—in his short collegiate career.
As a result, Coach Limbaugh decided to shuffle the lineups and he had the freshman open for the team in the semifinals. This time around, it was Sherwood who stood out, as he dominated the opening match, giving the Commodores the first point of the round and setting the tone for the rest of the playing slate.
Because of the outcome, coach Limbaugh had confidence that Sherwood should also open the championship round against the No. 5 seed, and defending champs, in Arkansas.
“We felt comfortable that [Sherwood] could play with anybody else that Arkansas put against him,” coach Limbaugh said. “So that was the way we started. ‘We’ll get Cole back out on the golf course and see if we can ride his hot hand,’ and, fortunately, that paid off for us.”
Coach Limbaugh credits assistant coach Gator Todd with scouting their opponents and helping set the final round lineup based on matchups.
After two dominant victories earlier in the weekend, Sunday afternoon’s match versus the Razorbacks will go down as one of Vanderbilt’s most intense competitions all year.
“It’s nervewracking,” Coach Limbaugh said. “It’s kinda hard to swallow sometimes out there just because you want the kids to enjoy the moment and have success, but it’s very, very intense.”
As Sherwood comfortably won his matchup, Ott and Riedel–who had yet to fall in match play–lost their matchups in quick succession, leaving it up to Davenport and Moll to bring the Commodores back from down 1-2-0.
Even though he was one score down in the 12th hole, Davenport was able to take a lead on the 15th hole. After his opponent, Tyson Reeder, hit a clutch putt to stay alive on the 16th hole, Davenport missed a difficult putt of his own on 17th that would have sealed his victory by just inches. Fortunately for the team, Davenport held on to win on the 18th hole, leaving Moll–who was up one at the time–as the deciding game.
“Just coming down the stretch, it’s ‘nervous time’,” Coach Limbaugh said. “But it’s why you play sports and why everything you do is to try to have moments like that.”
Moll, the team’s most consistent player this year, had been in control the entire match, but his opponent, Manuel Lozada, was able to stave off defeat with clutch shots on holes 15, 16, and 17.
On to 18!
Lozada extends the match, still 1 down.
All tied up at 2. pic.twitter.com/DEBv5V3m7M
— Razorback Men's Golf (@RazorbackMGolf) April 25, 2021
In a tense final hole, Moll missed a long birdie putt, giving Lozada a chance to send the match, and SEC championship, into a playoff with his putt.
As Lozada putted, his shot seemed to be perfectly on track. That is, until it lipped out of the hole, leaving him in shock and the Commodores relieved.
All Moll had to do was tap in a three-foot putt to give the Commodores their hard-fought victory.
— Vanderbilt Men's Golf (@VandyMGolf) April 25, 2021
“I knew [Moll] wasn’t gonna miss it and I was glad he was the one putting it,” Coach Limbaugh said. “[Moll] was in that moment for a reason. He’s growing and he’s a special player.”
“We knew going into that match, they are a great match play team. I knew it truly would take our best efforts, but we also got five good players, and when you look at our team, you gotta find a way where you’ll get three points there as well too,” Coach Limbaugh continued.
Ott said that this title made him think about when he was rooting for the historic 2017 team that won the school’s first SEC title in men’s golf, a year before he arrived on campus.
“I just remembered thinking that all of them are so great and that that team was incredible, and thinking about it today, it’s pretty cool we’re a part of that type of history for all of the Vanderbilt golf family,” Ott said. “It’s definitely a sense of leaving a little bit of a legacy.”
For Coach Limbaugh, winning this title during such a difficult year made the trophy even more special.
“It was a little bit emotional yesterday just thinking that, ‘man, we didn’t get to play this tournament last year’ and this is my favorite tournament of the year. And we came out on top of this thing this year with all the stuff we’ve had to go through, just to have the opportunity to play,” Coach Limbaugh continued. “It was rewarding and it’s really about the kids and the effort that they’ve put in it because their care level has been high and it’s fun to see them get rewarded for that.”
While Limbaugh is incredibly proud of the SEC championship his team just won, he believes that his team can improve in the two-and-a-half weeks they have before the NCAA Regional Championships as the Commodores brace for another title run.
“If we want to play for a long time in May, we gotta improve, and I think our guys know that,” Coach Limbaugh said.