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April 15, 2014

Staying on course

By: Jimmy Robertson

Tech golfer Scott Vincent has lived through some turbulent times in his native country of Zimbabwe, but that hasn’t kept him from swinging his way into the school’s record books

Scott Vincent has won three times this season and is on pace to become Tech’s all-time leader in career scoring average.

Most junior golfers grow up blessed, taking full advantage of affluent parents with large bank accounts. They use those benefits to play at exclusive country clubs, work under the best personal instructors and travel all over the country to play in prestigious amateur tournaments.

Scott Vincent’s background is a tad bit more modest. He grew up playing on the hardscrabble courses of his native Zimbabwe, a country in the southern part of Africa. Grass-carpeted fairways there were a luxury, and smooth, well-manicured greens were scarce.

So he chuckles when he hears his current Virginia Tech teammates grumble about a particular course.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “There are times when I look at a course and think, ‘Ah, this is wrong here and here.’ But when I do think about what I have played on before, it does make me appreciate just what we have here.”

Vincent, though, appreciates more than just pristine course conditions now that he’s playing for the Hokies and living and going to school here in the United States. He learned a long time ago not to take simple things, such as food and fuel, for granted. Growing up in Harare, Zimbabwe – a city of roughly 1.6 million people – he and his family never knew if they would have enough of either.

For those unfamiliar with this nation, Zimbabwe is a landlocked country of around 13 million people that borders South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana. It serves as the co-home (with Zambia) of one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world, Victoria Falls, which draws tourists from around the world, and the country possesses a rich sports history, with Nick Price having won three majors in golf, and Kirsty Coventry having won two Olympic gold medals in swimming. But lately, Zimbabwe has become more synonymous with government instability and economic hardship.

Vincent’s father works in banking software, thus providing a good source of income for the family. But that doesn’t mean they were immune to every-day issues.

“It was tough,” Vincent said. “There was a point when we’d go to the shops and walk in a grocery store, and there wouldn’t be a single bit of food anywhere to be found. The whole store would be empty. There were tough situations that my parents had to go through. Looking back, I don’t know how they did it. God made a way, and we were able to get through that situation. He looked after us and so many families in that country.

“It was a bit unstable, but I managed to come through. It’s crazy to think that a little kid from Harare, Zimbabwe is now playing golf at Virginia Tech. It’s a cool story. There are a lot of others like me.”

Vincent got his start in golf like many young kids do – by following his dad to the course and whacking around a few balls for fun. The fun became a passion. Then the passion became an obsession. Vincent then got serious about a potential future in the sport.

“The older I got, the hungrier I got for the game,” Vincent said. “When I was about 14, that’s when I made the decision that I wanted to take this seriously and turn it into a career some day.”

As a teenager, Vincent got connected with a man named Roger Baylis, a noted golf instructor in Harare. Baylis serves as the head professional at Chapman Golf Club, one of the nicer courses in the country, and he has worked with numerous junior golfers over the years. He also serves as the national coach for the Zimbabwe Golf Association.

Baylis saw potential in Vincent and started working with him. Of course, that required Vincent to come to the course regularly – something much harder to accomplish than splitting a narrow fairway 300 yards long.

“It was hard to get gas sometimes, so it was hard to get to the golf course,” Vincent said.

Under Baylis’ tutelage, Vincent became a good golfer and received recognition on the junior circuit. Baylis drove him to tournaments and later selected him to play on the Zimbabwe junior team and national team.

Vincent’s play earned him invitations to more prestigious tournaments, and he has played all over the world. As a teenager, he played in the Junior Orange Bowl International Championship held at the Biltmore Golf Course in Coral Gables, Fla. – a tournament he would eventually play in four times. It was there where he received close scrutiny from Hardwick, the Hokies’ coach.

“He was so little when I first saw him that I wasn’t sure he could be a mascot,” Hardwick said, with a chuckle.

But Hardwick trusted what he saw – a young golfer with tremendous hands. He also trusted Baylis, a man he came to know while serving as the coach of Team USA at the 1992 World Junior Team Championship held in Izumo City, Japan. The U.S. team and the Zimbabwe team, coached by Baylis, were paired together for a round.

“We struck up a friendship,” Hardwick said. “For one thing, there were only three or four of us [coaches] over there who spoke English, so we had to band together. We hit it off, and we played together [that round].

“Sean Farrell [a former Tech golfer] played on that team [from Zimbabwe], and I was very impressed with him. I talked to Roger about him and asked if he wanted to play golf in the States. They hadn’t had anyone be able to do that, and I had never done much with international players at that time, but Sean was a bright, young man and things worked out. He was a terrific player for us.”

That started the pipeline. Hardwick later got de Jonge, a heavily recruited player, primarily because Baylis trusted Hardwick and the way Hardwick’s program and the school had treated Farrell. Later on, Hardwick signed Nick MacDonald, and a few years ago, Marc MacDonald.

Vincent wanted to come to Tech all along. He knew of Farrell and de Jonge, and he was friends with the MacDonalds, particularly Marc, who played on the Tech team the past three seasons.

“I heard about Virginia Tech through them and had my eyes focused on Virginia Tech, but hadn’t been given the green light,” Vincent said. “I played in that tournament four years, and Jay Hardwick saw me and eventually gave me an opportunity to play here, which I ended up taking.”

Scott Vincent won twice in September to become the first Tech player to be named ACC Player of the Month, and then he fired a 13-under-par 203 to win the Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate in Johnson City, Tenn., in early October.

“He was very smallish in size, but that never bothers me,” Hardwick said. “Guys get bigger and stronger. No one really knew about him at the time. By the time he became a junior, we knew we really wanted him. By the time he played as a senior, he had signed with us.”

Vincent never took an official visit. He trusted the MacDonalds and trusted Hardwick.

He saw Virginia Tech for the first time only days before beginning classes for the fall semester.

Vincent’s adaptation to American culture took some time. He needed to learn his way around Tech’s campus, and he needed to adjust to simple things, like time management considering his course workload and Tech’s practice schedule. He also had to adapt to the food and the people.

Marc MacDonald helped him, but he couldn’t be with Vincent every minute of the day. So mostly what Vincent learned, he learned on his own.

“It was a completely different culture compared to back home,” Vincent said. “The people are very friendly, but still different. The food was different. The workload was different. A lot of things were different.”

He felt a little more at home on the golf course, where, as a freshman, he earned the right to be the Hokies’ No. 2 player in the lineup behind Mikey Moyers. Yet his confidence took a hit following his first collegiate tournament.

At that event – the Northern Intercollegiate played at Rich Harvest Farms outside of Chicago – Vincent finished in a respectable 14th place, and the team came in fourth. But he shot 8-over-par, not his usual high standard.

That prompted a phone call home to his dad.

“I said, ‘I don’t think I’m good enough to play college golf,’” Vincent said. “It was the hardest tournament, and I still think it was one of the hardest courses I’ve ever played on. I thought, ‘If this is what college golf is, I don’t know if I have the game for it.’

“I’ll never forget that. But he [his dad] was there to tell me to keep going and do my best and that was all I could do. Fortunately, I listened to that and didn’t shoot off back home.”

He finished his freshman year shooting a 73.3 average, second on the team. His best finish came at the NCAA regional when he came in third. Tech advanced out of the regional to the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship held at famed Riviera Country Club near Los Angeles.

Last year, he improved, shooting an average of 71.7 – tops on the squad. He posted five top-five finishes and three more top-10 finishes. His immense talent started showing, but he wanted to get that elusive victory.

That came in the opening tournament this past fall. He tied a school record with an 8-under-par 64 in the final round to claim co-medalist honors at the Golfweek Conference Challenge held at Spirit Hollow Golf Club in Burlington, Iowa. The tournament honored him with the champion’s trophy because he had the lowest final round.

Vincent went on to win two more times last fall.

“The fall semester was crazy,” he said. “Everything fell into place for me. It couldn’t have gone any better, and it was really cool to experience that. It gave me a lot of confidence, but this semester [the spring semester] has put a lot of pressure on me, and I haven’t handled it as well as I would have liked. But that’s just a process I’m learning and going through.”

It’s not like Vincent has been a hack this spring. The young man shot 4-under-par in the spring-opening tournament in Puerto Rico, finishing in 16th, and he finished second at the Augusta Invitational in Augusta, Ga., seventh at the Furman Intercollegiate in Greenville, S.C., and 10th at the Mission Inn Spring Spectacular in Florida on a tough course. The Hokies won the latter two tournaments.

But he has higher expectations of himself.

“I see a little frustration,” Hardwick said. “Scotty didn’t have his ‘A’ game at the Mission Inn tournament. He probably had his ‘B’ game, but he still finished 10th.

“We’ve got four guys who can play, and I think it would have been a lot tougher on Scotty had he not played as well and the team not played well. He would have thought he had to carry things on his shoulders, and he doesn’t have to do that.”

As he finishes his junior campaign, Vincent remains on course to become the school’s all-time leader in scoring average. De Jonge fired an average of 72.60 per round during his career (1999-2003), and Vincent entered the spring with a 72.07 average. Of course, that’s a moving target, but his 70.50 average through 26 rounds this season certainly keeps him on pace.

The two Zimbabwean and Tech greats have not met. But that will change after Tech’s tournament in Augusta, Ga., in early April. Hardwick arranged for the team to take in one of the Masters’ practice rounds, and de Jonge is competing in the Masters.

“I’m looking forward to that,” Vincent said. “It’ll be good to finally introduce myself to him.”

School records and meeting national heroes are secondary to Vincent’s ultimate goal – getting the Hokies back to the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship. His freshman season, he and the Hokies advanced out of the regionals to the Championship for the third time in school history. Tech finished 24th, and Vincent finished 45th as an individual.

With three players ranked in the top 100, including Vincent, who is ranked in the top 25, the Hokies want nothing less than a return trip.

“We do have high expectations,” Vincent said. “We’ve got a team top to bottom that is really strong. You have a bit of that pressure, and we have been able to step up and play to what is expected.”

Vincent already has come a long way – literally and figuratively. The small kid of humble beginnings from Zimbabwe is now one of the best junior golfers in the United States.

His is certainly a great story to tell. Hopefully, getting to this point was just the beginning.