AUBURN, Ala. – Virginia Tech coach Jay Hardwick first saw Scott Vincent at the 2007 Junior Orange Bowl in Miami. The kid was so unimpressive, physically, that Hardwick admittedly was worried.
“Scott was so little,” he recalled this week, “that I thought he could have been a mascot.”
Instead, Vincent, now a junior, has blossomed into a top-10 player, Virginia Tech’s all-time scoring leader, and a three-time winner this season for the 12th-ranked team in the country.
Through two rounds here at the NCAA Auburn regional, he is tied for sixth, three shots back heading into the final day.
Following in the path of Brendon de Jonge, Vincent is the fifth young player to arrive (and then thrive) via the unlikely Zimbabwe-to-Blacksburg pipeline.
The first player from Zimbabwe – a third-world country of 13 million in southeast Africa – to catch Hardwick’s eye was Sean Farrell. The story goes that in 1992, Hardwick was selected to coach Team USA at the World Junior Team Championships in Japan. The Americans were seeded fifth and eventually won by 17 shots, but in one round they were paired with Zimbabwe.
Farrell was the No. 1 player on that squad, and Hardwick and Roger Baylis, the national coach for the Zimbabwe Golf Association, became fast friends. Farrell decided to head to Virginia to pursue his college education, and he enjoyed a fruitful four years in Blacksburg, winning multiple titles and playing for three seasons alongside current VT assistant Brian Sharp.
After graduation, Farrell returned to South Africa and continued to find success on the Sunshine Tour. Said Hardwick, “That did a lot for Virginia Tech’s reputation.”
Soon after came De Jonge, a two-time All-American during his 1999-2003 career. After that sensational run, “we had the pick of the kids from Zimbabwe,” Hardwick said.
Brothers Nick (2004-08) and Marc MacDonald (2009-2013) were the third and fourth Zimbabweans to play for Virginia Tech, and the most recent is Vincent, who started in 2011.
The common denominator?
“Great, soft hands,” said Hardwick, now in his 31st year. “I don’t know whether it’s the conditions that they play at home and when they come over here it’s so much better, but they all had great short games. When you have that, you can score.”
In Farrell’s first tournament, in ’92, he hit his approach shot at Kiawah Island’s first hole to the right of the green, his ball rolling down onto a dirt path. Hardwick approach his player to make sure he knew that he was entitled to a free drop.
“Coach,” Farrell told him, “this is better than anything we play at home.”
“So he took out an old sand wedge – I don’t think it had a groove left in it – and hit it to six inches,” Hardwick recalled, shaking his head. “Right then I knew we’d be OK.”
Vincent, though, has been even better. He led the nation in total short game in 2012-13 and also topped the category through the fall season.
“A lot of courses in Zimbabwe are very dry and run-down, not in very good shape, and I learned how to play on those as well as some of the good courses,” said Vincent, the Zimbabwe National Amateur champion in 2010 and ’11. “I spent a lot more time practicing my short game growing up than any other part of my game.”
Vincent received a rude awakening as a college freshman. His first college event was held at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill. That course, which this week is hosting an NCAA regional, is one of the toughest venues that college golfers will face all season, and that week it was cold, windy and rainy.
Vincent finished 14th that week, but afterward he was so overwhelmed and discouraged that he called his father.
“I told him, ‘If this is what college golf is like, then I don’t know if I’m good enough to play,’” Vincent said.
It got easier, of course. Vincent packed on 15 pounds, grew a few inches and played on two World Amateur Team Championships for Zimbabwe, but he has truly come into his own this season, winning three times in his first four starts and finishing outside the top 16 only once. He is No. 10 in Golfstat’s individual rankings.
Along the way he also has overtaken his fellow countrymen, one of his idols, in career scoring average at Virginia Tech – Vincent sits at 71.94; De Jonge finished at 72.60. (Junior Trevor Cone currently averages 72.52.)
The first person to text Hardwick after Vincent took over the top spot: De Jonge, whom Vincent still has never met in person.
“I’m not sure I’d call myself a better player than he was at the time, but I guess the scores are showing a little better,” Vincent said. “We’ll just have to see. He’s on the Tour and I’m not.”
True, but there’s reason to believe that will change in a few more years.