College Men

Notebook: Stewart leads Vandy in opener

Vanderbilt senior Hunter Stewart took medalist honors at the season-opening Carmel Cup.
Vanderbilt senior Hunter Stewart took medalist honors at the season-opening Carmel Cup. ( Photo Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics )

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Vanderbilt head coach Scott Limbaugh knows a coach-driven team can only go so far.

Luckily for Limbaugh, he has Hunter Stewart atop his lineup.

Stewart, a senior from Lexington, Ky., has played in all but two rounds for the Commodores since arriving at Vanderbilt in the fall of 2011. He’s led the team in scoring average in each of the past two seasons, and has 17 career top 10s, including two victories.

“If you look at what he's done, we feel like he's one of the best players in the country,” Limbaugh said. “He’s undoubtedly the leader of our team.”

Stewart got the Commodores off to a nice start to the fall season by taking medalist honors and leading Vanderbilt to a runner-up finish at the season-opening Carmel Cup. He shot 5-under 31 on Pebble Beach’s back nine in the first round and added another 31 on Pebble’s front nine in the final round, finishing the tournament at 11-under 205.

“It’s a special place to win,” Stewart said. “Not many people can say they’ve won a golf tournament at Pebble Beach.”

Limbaugh inherited Stewart when he became Vanderbilt’s coach two seasons ago. Stewart quickly bought into what Limbaugh wanted to do, and together they’ve helped build the Commodores into a national contender – Vanderbilt, coming off its first NCAA Championship appearance since 2007, is the sixth-ranked team in Golfweek’s preseason rankings.

Stewart has also shown significant growth as a golfer.

After missing the cut by a shot at the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage last spring, an opportunity he got by winning The Players Amateur in 2013, Stewart rejoined the Commodores’ lineup for the SEC Championship at Sea Island. He shot 80 in the first round and finished T-64, tied for the worst finish on the team.

“He played terrible and had probably his worst tournament of the season,” Limbaugh said. “We sat down after that and I told him that you can’t assume anything.”

Said Stewart: “Coach Limbaugh has always been real honest with me and that was a talk I needed to have. He told me that just because you play in a PGA Tour event doesn’t mean everything is going to be given to you and that it’s going to be easy.

“If you look back at all of it, that might be the defining moment.”

Stewart responded by leading Vanderbilt in scoring at the NCAA San Antonio Regional and the NCAA Championship. Then this summer, he qualified for the U.S. Open and missed the cut by a shot at Pinehurst, finished runner-up in his title defense at The Players Amateur, and missed the cut by one at the U.S. Amateur.

“He’s just been great ever since,” Limbaugh said. “He’s really showing a lot of confidence.”

Limbaugh said Stewart is a player who likes to be pushed, and Stewart has met the challenge. He’s improved his mental approach and developed a strong understanding of the game.

“Everybody in college golf works hard,” Stewart said. “I’m out there with my team three to four hours a day on the course just like everyone else, but the way I’ve learned to approach the game, the focus to detail, playing much more relaxed out there, that has allowed me to have success.”

Said Limbaugh: “He just thinks really well. Last year, the lights went on and he just really understands golf a lot more.”

With Stewart setting a strong example, the rest of the Vanderbilt lineup seems to be following suit. Limbaugh has stressed the importance of every shot, and while the team gave away a few at Pebble Beach, it was still a solid early-season performance as the Commodores rallied from last place after the first round to finish second.

“We’re all excited about this season,” Stewart said. “We believe in each other. We know that we can be great. I don’t know if we’re there yet, but we have the pieces and the talent in place.”

And in Stewart, Vanderbilt has one of the top players in the country.

• • •

SHOT OF CONFIDENCE: The season couldn’t have started much better for the Georgia Bulldogs.

Ranked ninth in the Golfweek preseason rankings, the Bulldogs posted a wire-to-wire victory at the Carmel Cup. Georgia shot 17-under 1,063 to win by five shots at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

“It's a long season, of course, but to win right out of the gate does a lot for us," Georgia coach Chris Haack said in a school release. "Anytime you get to hold the trophy on the last day, it's a shot in the arm for your confidence. Our guys played well all summer and they were steady in this tournament. We can build on this as we move forward."

A big reason for the Bulldogs’ success at Pebble Beach: junior Lee McCoy.

The Clarkesville, Ga., native, who was second on the team in scoring (71.34) a season ago, placed second individually at 9-under 207.

The performance comes after McCoy shared stroke-play medalist honors at the U.S. Amateur. He was one of three current Georgia players to qualify for match play at Atlanta Athletic Club, joining senior Mookie DeMoss and freshman Zach Healy, both of whom made the Bulldogs’ six-man lineup at Pebble Beach.

Georgia, which won four tournaments last season, will next play in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Collegiate Challenge Cup Sept. 19-21 in Nashville, Tenn. The Bulldogs are the defending champs.

• • •

SHORT SHOTS: Oklahoma State, which finished runner-up at last year’s NCAA Championship, placed eighth at the Carmel Cup, 38 shots back of winner Georgia. The Cowboys competed without junior Jordan Niebrugge, who is out with a right wrist injury and started three players making their college debuts (freshmen Brendon Jelley, Stratton Nolen and Sam Stevens). . . . With Oklahoma senior Charlie Saxon out with a shoulder injury, the Sooners tied for fourth at Pebble Beach. Sophomore Max McGreevy led the team with a T-4 finish, but true freshman Grant Hirschman came up big in tying for 15th. . . . Arkansas placed seventh as a team at the Carmel Cup, but had three players finish T-15 or better – juniors Kolton Crawford (T-4) and Taylor Moore (T-15), and true freshman Alvaro Ortiz (T-15), who is the younger brother of Carlos Ortiz, who has won three times this season on the Tour.