Family and Competition: How Scott Limbaugh is building a men’s golf powerhouse
In less than a decade under Scott Limbaugh, the men’s golf program has seen a meteoric rise that should only continue.
November 1, 2021
When the recently hired Scott Limbaugh first met with his new team in August of 2012, he walked into the classroom they were meeting in at the McGugin Center and declared, “Welcome to the best golf program in the country.”
“Who is this guy? What just happened?” Hunter Stewart—then a sophomore golfer—thought to himself at the time. “It’s an unforgettable moment. I think he obviously went for a little bit of a shock, but he achieved it.”
Limbaugh remembers some players laughing under their breath and an uncomfortable silence that followed.
“But I meant every word of it,” he says.
Nine years later, no one would doubt that.
Growing up in a family of multi-sport athletes and as the son of a coach, Limbaugh always dreamed of being a coach himself.
Before becoming a coach, Limbaugh won two national junior college golf championships with Central Alabama Community College and played two more years at Huntingdon College. After graduating, he was hired as an assistant at Huntingdon. Within a year, Limbaugh became the program’s head coach at just 24 years old.
“I absolutely had no idea that would happen that quickly,” Limbaugh says.
After three successful years at his alma mater, Limbaugh was invited to interview for the men’s golf assistant coach position at the University of Alabama by Jay Seawell—the program’s head coach. He was hired that day.
In his five years in Tuscaloosa, Limbaugh and Alabama won two SEC titles and finished second in the national championship in his final year.
While Limbaugh’s former team and recruits, including future No. 1-ranked player in the world Justin Thomas, won back-to-back national titles in 2013 and 2014, Limbaugh was already on West End revamping a Vanderbilt program that had never finished better than fourth place at the SEC tournament—which had last occurred in 2004.
“From the start, it was excellence and competition in everything that we did. He required the most from us and he got the best out of us,” Stewart says. “He really turned a bunch of individuals into a family and changed the entire attitude of the program and changed the standards and raised them.”
Few understand the transition to Limbaugh as well as Stewart, who went from not enjoying playing golf his freshman year to an SEC Player of the Year under Limbaugh in his senior year.
It was that same season that Limbaugh realized he had something special brewing at Vanderbilt. Just three years after being hired, the team was making its second NCAA tournament appearance under him.
After struggling the first day at the NCAA Championships, the squad regrouped and rallied to finish second in the stroke play portion of the tournament and secure Vanderbilt’s first-ever appearance in golf’s elite eight.
“There might have been one player in that five that was recruited by me, but those guys chose to buy in, and it wasn’t always easy,” Limbaugh says. “It was that moment where I was like, ‘If we’re willing to put our heads down and put the work in, we can accomplish really great things here’.”
Since that 2015 season, the accolades and victories have only multiplied for the program.
Under Limbaugh, the Commodores have won two SEC titles, in 2017—the first in program history—and 2021. They have five NCAA Championship match play appearances (last eight teams) in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2021, and they reached the final four in both 2017 and 2019. The team also won outright its first NCAA regional qualifier in 2021.
In nine years, Vanderbilt has over 25 event wins, and after finishing the 2021 season ranked No. 7 in the country, the Commodores are the only program in the nation with seven-straight finishes in the top 10 of the Coaches’ Poll.
Individually, Vanderbilt players have also thrived. Limbaugh has coached four SEC Players of the Year, 20 All-American selections with six of them being first-team members, 22 All-SEC players and one SEC Freshman of the Year.
In this span, Limbaugh has won three SEC Coach of the Year awards (all in the last five years), one GCAA national Coach of the Year award and three Southeast Region Coach of the Year awards.
Despite all this success, Vanderbilt golfers believe that two things define the program more than numbers and accolades: family and competition.
Making Golf a Team Sport
Stewart and 2019 SEC Player of the Year Will Gordon both say they still have a group text with members of their team from their time at Vanderbilt, while they also talk to Limbaugh on a regular basis.
The two program legends believe that this family dynamic is unique to Vanderbilt golf in such an individual sport.
“He really makes golf a team sport,” Gordon, a current PGA Tour pro, says. “All my best friends from college were my teammates, and just having friends from other programs, I know it’s not like that everywhere.”
Freshman Jackson Van Paris, who arrived on West End as a highly regarded recruit this past fall, says he has certainly felt this since being at Vanderbilt.
“[Limbaugh] values that family-like atmosphere,” Van Paris says. “[The players] all want the best for each other and we all treat each other like brothers.”
All three players articulated that their individual relationship with Limbaugh was much deeper than just golf. Limbaugh acknowledges that developing this environment starts with how he connects to every player on the roster.
“That’s just who I am,” he says. “I want to treat the 9 or 10 guy on the team just like I do the 1 guy, but I want everybody to know they’re important and their roles are important.”
He also credits the relationship his family—including his wife, Kate, and their three kids—has with the program as a way of cultivating this environment.
“My family’s a huge part of what we do [at Vanderbilt],” he says. “My three kids were down there with us at the SEC Match Play running around cheering for the guys. [They] know that these Vandy golf boys are part of our family as well.”
Competing On and Off the Course
These lifelong friendships formed thanks to Vanderbilt golf are forged through constant competition.
“From races to workouts to do-or-die putting and chipping drills in practice. It was just competition in everything,” Stewart says of his time at Vanderbilt once Limbaugh became the head coach.
Under Limbaugh, players began battling for spots in the lineup through match play amongst teammates in practice, a tradition that still continues.
“You had to earn your spot in qualifying and nothing was really given to you and it just really elevated everyone’s game,” Stewart says.
As someone who played basketball, football and baseball in high school, Limbaugh loves competing and sees great value in consistent competition.
“There’s an art to beating people and you have to be in those positions to learn about yourself,” he says.
At the Vanderbilt Legends Club—where both the men’s and women’s teams practice—the Commodores share an exclusive facility that contains a driving range, locker rooms and coach’s offices. Yet, the most popular part of the house may be its ping pong tables, which is where players and coaches compete outside of golf.
“I’ll compete with the boys all the time,” Limbaugh says. “I feel like I can learn who’s gonna show a little resiliency when they’re down 15 to 10 going to 21, who’s gonna hang in there and who’s just gonna be like, ‘I’m done, I can’t beat coach’—all of that stuff matters and a lot of that’s just a mindset.”
Despite having only spent a few months on campus, Van Paris says he already had several fiery matches with Limbaugh and that one’s competitiveness is brought out from the first day of practice.
“[Limbaugh] brings it to everything, doesn’t matter what it is, he’s gonna try to kick your ass and that’s what I love about him,” he says.
Van Paris has also already experienced the intense match play that goes on before qualifying for events.
“All of us hate losing. We want the best for each other, but we want to kick each other’s butts every single day, and I think that’s what makes Vanderbilt one of the best teams at the end of the year because we’re battle-tested,” the first-year says. “If we can beat each other, then we can beat other teams, which is the way that a lot of us look at it. [Limbaugh] harps on that.”
The Vanderbilt Way
To fit into this climate, Limbaugh tries to recruit players he believes have the right mindset.
“We try to be a tough-minded team,” he says. “We try to recruit young people that want to be coached. They want to be held accountable. They want to play for each other, not just themselves, even though most people view golf as an individual sport.”
Across every player’s career at Vanderbilt, Limbaugh pushes them to broaden their mental, physical and moral toughness both on and off the golf course. Limbaugh sees it as the coaching staff’s duty to help players develop good habits that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
His players recognize that Limbaugh’s commitment to their growth and to his principles are key to the program’s success and they have all bought his messaging.
“That’s just a testament to Limbaugh’s ability to motivate and inspire and get you to work and come together as a team and do things the right way,” Gordon says. “He doesn’t accept anything under that, he’s not gonna waver on his key things that he wants you to adhere to being part of the program and being responsible to teammates.”
If a player ever steps out of the boundaries the program has set, Limbaugh and their teammates will help bring them back in.
“Anything less than 100 percent will not be tolerated and that’s what makes us great and that’s what makes the program great and that’s what makes Limbaugh and [assistant] coach [Gator] Todd great,” Van Paris says.
Another aspect of Limbaugh that stands out is his ceaseless energy and passion in everything he does. Stewart compares Limbaugh to a rambunctious football coach and celebrates the unique aura he has built within the program.
“You won’t find anybody more passionate about their job and about developing people and players,” Gordon says. “Limbaugh is always willing to have that hard conversation or take the extra time or stay at the golf house till 10:30 p.m. Whatever it is, he’s always willing to push you a little bit farther and I think that’s what separates him on a coaching level.”
Limbaugh says he refuses to be around negative people and that he looks at everything in a positive way. Players find this attitude inspiring and know how Limbaugh will even train right alongside them.
“We have 6 a.m. workouts Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ve never seen him not bringing 100 percent of his energy to that workout,” Van Paris says. “Every day he comes here for us. He sets the standard.”
It all starts with Limbaugh, who believes in always adapting to your team and evolving as coach and person. He cites NFL legend Tom Brady and VandyBoys head coach Tim Corbin as two of his inspirations because of their attitudes to change and their growth mindsets.
Building the Best
The men’s golf team started the year as the No. 6-ranked team in the country. They finished fifth and ninth in their first two tournaments, but have improved since, finishing in second place at the 2021 SEC Match Play Championship and third at the Williams Cup—their final tournament of the fall season. The Commodores were slotted at No. 15 in the nation in the most recent Coaches’ Poll.
Not only are expectations for the spring semester high after the team’s solid finish, but the future of an already elite program looks incredibly bright.
The Commodores secured the best recruiting class in the country for 2021, as they added Gordon Sargent and the aforementioned Van Paris, who were the No. 2 and No. 3 high school men’s golfers in the nation, respectively.
“The reputation of Vanderbilt golf is that we do everything at a really high level, whether it’s the way we act, the way we play, interactions with others,” Van Paris says. “That’s credit to Coach Limbaugh and Coach Todd, what they’ve done to the program and what standard they hold us to.”
In less than 10 years, Limbaugh has completely transformed Vanderbilt men’s golf.
When Will Gordon was being recruited in the fall of 2013, Limbaugh talked to him about the unique opportunity to help build something, rather than add to something that was already established.
“Limbaugh did a good job getting a lot of players to buy into that and he led that the whole way and he’s continued to get more families and players to buy into that vision and he’s created something really special,” Gordon says.
Undoubtedly, Vanderbilt has a great program in its men’s golf team.
“I think with Nashville, with Vanderbilt, with the facilities that they have and then you throw in one of the best few coaches in the country and one of the best men in college golf leading the program, I definitely see things continuing to get better,” Stewart says.
Almost 10 years after declaring to a group of young men he had yet to meet that they were now a part of the best golf program in the country, Limbaugh and Vanderbilt men’s golf’s journey to the top continues.
“We weren’t there yet [in 2012], but that’s the mindset I’ve always had and I want to have people in this program that believe the same way,” Limbaugh says. “I believe we can have the best golf program in the country. It takes the people in the golf program that believe that and everybody that supports it to believe that.”