We’re about to tee off on number one, and it’s an unseasonably warm 60 degree day in January with blue skies and sunshine- so basically the day Greg Allman wrote about- but not one person is complaining. In fact, the course is slammer and we have a 30 minute wait on our hands. It’s me, former Vanderbilt golfer Jordan Janico, and a local retiree we were paired with named Pete.
When we take the tee, Jordan, a former top five golfer for the Commodores pulls out a two-iron. At least he says it is. It has no markings, but it is made by Ping- his favorite iron company, and he hits the ball with confidence and power that most people at McCabe Golf Course dream about. The ball sails right to left about 250 yards and lands middle of the fairway.
“It’s a different expectation.” Janico, describes his view of playing McCabe Golf Course instead of the elite courses like Pebble Beach, Isleworth, and Augusta National he played when he was in college. “It may not even be the same game,” he surmises.
But Janico isn’t cocky. He’s kind, confident, and coversational- the way you would be if you were a marathon runner on an easy jog with an out of shape friend.
Janico agreed to play golf with me and let me pick his brain about what it was like to be a really good golfer at one of the elite golf programs in the country. He discussed his time as a junior player, his biggest challenge during college, navigating a coaching change, and being on the front end of Vanderbilt’s ascendence to elite status.
Jordan was born and raised in Atlanta, GA where he attended Mount Pisgah Christian School and became a top 250 high school player in the country. Janico comes from an athletic family, his father played professional soccer in a Canada, something Jordan played growing up as well. But he focused on golf starting around age nine, playing golf at St Ives Country Club.
I asked him about youth golf and he caught me off guard, “it’s all crazy.” He explained, “High School golf doesn’t matter- like if you want to be recruited. It’s all about the youth tours. The biggest is the AJGA. You have to apply for tournaments and get exemptions just like professional tours. The better you get or better tournaments you play in, you get exemptions to other tournaments.” He does concede, though, it’s probably the best system to get competition between the best youth golfers.
“It’s very expensive,” he adds. The cost of youth golf is prohibitive for many who are trying to play competitively. He mentions recruiting services, and I mistook his statement for a golf service like Rivals, but he meant people who advise golf parents on the recruiting process. I should know that’s a thing- after all, there is so much money to be had in college athletics. Yet, I’m dubious. After all the equipment, lessons, travel and fees can it be worth it? Like the economics major he was, he said, “there are 4.5 scholarships per DI team. If you get a half [scholarship] to a place like Vanderbilt, that’s $100,000 over four years.”
We make it to the fourth hole, a short and straight par 5. He thunder funks TaylorMade M3, former roommate and current tour player Carson Jacobs, passed down to him. I give a mighty lash with my Callaway Epic. “You’ve got some speed, I see.” Boom. A compliment from a former big time golfer. I should have walked off the course in glory, but instead we walked to our balls. He hit his ten yards farther. He is gracious and chalks it up to “new technology.”
I asked him about his recruiting process. Janico had designs to stay in the state. “I wanted to go to Georgia Tech and study aerospace engineering. I had wanted to do that as far back I could remember.” Engineering? “Yeah, I did that for one semester at Vanderbilt and realized I should do econ instead,” he said with a grin.
But he almost never made it to Vanderbilt or any other golf program. Janico quit golf at the beginning of his Junior year. He was burned out. “I didn’t know if I loved it. I just knew it was something I had always done.” He says his parents were very supportive, which is not the case for many youth sports athletes. Janico’s burn out was common. There is a direct correlation between the earlier a child plays adult run competitive sports to burn out between 16-19.
How’d he get back into the game? He got advice from a teacher/mentor at his school. “Yeah, basically, I was told ‘do it until you hate it.’” Meaning, if you don’t hate it, then don’t quit. If you do hate it, then it isn’t for you. He started playing again in the spring of his Junior year.
The sabbatical might have been the best thing for him. “I played my best golf following that break.” That’s when Vanderbilt noticed him, too.
Vanderbilt started recruiting Jordan during his Junior season. Former head coach Tom Shaw visited him at Southeastern Junior Golf Tour’s Huntsville Junior Invitational. It was a two day event and Shaw was there for the first day. Janico shot 32 on the front and Shaw left, seeing enough to solidify his imperssion. Janico then shot 30 on the back nine. He said, “it was automatic. I wasn’t thinking, and I was making everything I looked at.” He turned his eye to the next day. “I wanted to break 130. I knew I wouldn’t have that chance often?” I asked if he could sleep that night, and he had not problem. He shot 67 the next day breaking the 130 mark by one stroke and leaving the field in the dust, winning by 11 strokes. Shaw offered him after the tournament.
We’re on number seven green. Jordan drove it to the front of the green and I pulled mine deep and left. After a miraculous up, I’m putting for birdie. Jordan has an eight footer uphill for birdie when I realize he’s putted for birdie on every hole but two. This isn’t fair. He’s so good. How can people be this good at golf? It’s fun though. Maybe he’ll be a scramble or best ball partner.
I feel confident and ask him about his time at Vanderbilt and what it was like to play for coach Limbaugh.
Janico’s Vanderbilt career was a successful but labored one. After his freshman year, he had two surgeries- one on each hip. He had a congenital issue and had torn the labrum in each hip. Each surgery required five months rehab, and he hated sitting out. He wasn’t sure if he would make it back 100%, but he trusted the medical staff.
There were a couple silver linings, though. First, he didn’t have to fully participate in the new training regimen under new head coach Scott Limbaugh. “We did a lot of sprints.” He practiced his putting more than normal because he couldn’t make a full swing either, which gave him his best putting season in his college career. Since he redshirted, he was on campus for five years, the last two were successful years under Limbaugh, and he met his future wife, Shannon, in his fifth year.
Limbaugh came in after Jordan’s second year. He hit the ground running placing a phone call to Janico, “yeah, he called me and told me from everything he had heard, I was a vocal leader and should be a top player on this team.”
That kind of confidence and vision didn’t just lift Janico, it had an effect on the team as well. “The first meeting we had with him, he walked in and said, ‘welcome to the best team in the nation.’ We all looked around and were like, wait, what? Let’s go!” Janico talks fondly, if not excitedly about Limbaugh, “he’s an inspirational guy. He’s like a football coach.”
“So much it [of his process] is mental toughness,” Janico said. Limbaugh’s process is to challenge the team mentally by working them out physically. I balked at the idea that golfers should go hard physically. Wouldn’t that time and energy be best spent on short game practice? “He used to tell us all the time, ‘when you’re on the first tee, there won’t be another golfer out there more fit than you.’ It gave us an edge physically, but we were so confident, too.”
Under Limbaugh, Vanderbilt has made the NCAA regional tournament every year he has been there and advanced to the National Championship every year but 2013, his first.. At NCAA Championship tournament they have finished stroke play T-16, 2nd, T-4, 1st, and 9th. Top 8 in stroke play advance to match play. In match play, they have finished T-5, T-5, T-3. They also won the SEC Title in 2014.
We’re on the ninth green and he is putting for birdie again. I ask him how good the NCAA players are. “Like +4’s?”
He laughed because I had no idea, and also with a little bit of awe. “At least. I mean, after my surgery, I was playing the best golf of my career, and I was a +4 and not even a top 100 player in the NCAA.”
As far as his time away from the course went, he says his favorite thing to eat at McGuggin were the milkshakes, and his least favorite was the grilled chicken, “like, I always wanted a good grilled chicken breast, but it never actually seemed grilled.”
His Spotify list an Americana one. He’s a Sturgil fan, which makes sense being a Nashvillian, and has recently gone on a deep dive into Nickel Creek.
Most influential person in his college career was Stacey Croft, a campus pastor. “We’d meet in a Bible study once a week. Stacey knew what it was like to be a student athlete [he was a decathlete at Baylor]. He’s just a good guy. He officiated my wedding.”
We finish up, shake hands, and walk off the green. We say goodbye to Pete. He has let us talk the whole time and he wasn’t phased. He may have been marveling at the absurdly long and straight drives, too. Maybe I’m projecting?
Janico looks fondly on his time at Vandy, but he has moved on from competitive golf. “I do a lot of mountain biking now. I know that no matter how much I practice or play, now, I will never be as good as I was. It’s weird thinking I can’t ever get better than I was.” That has to be a hard concept, to know you’ve mastered something so early in life but not be able to reach those heights again.
Yet, Janico doesn’t seem too phased. When he plays golf- this is the first time in three months- he plays for fun. Like when he and several classmates from Vanderbilt hold an annual tournament in honor of their friend Rohan. He didn’t die. They just really like him, so they hold a tournament for him.
“We had this guy, Rohan, we went to college with who was not athletic, but his senior year he was determined to play golf. He’s terrible, but he loves it. So every year we hold a big tournament out here called “The Rohan Cup.” I ask if it’s like 10-12 friends. He says, “Like 100. It’s all in honor of this guy we love and it’s a reason for us to all get together and have a reunion. The golf is just for fun.”