Donnell: Quick Starts & Fast Finishes
Donnell somehow got it a little backwards. He finished his
first year as a Vanderbilt golfer on the upswing but his
first few chapters were out of order to get there.
It’s not at all uncommon for a high school
athletic star to arrive on a college campus and promptly
begin struggling at the very things that once seemed second
There are dozens of theories as to why this
happens to many but that’s not what happened to Donnell,
a golf phenom from Mobile who arrived at Vanderbilt late
last August ready to give the Commodore program a big boost.
And that is exactly what he did in his first
three or four tournaments. His debut was at the Navy Invitational,
where he helped the Black and Gold win the 27-team event.
His next outing was the Mason Rudolph Invitational at the
Legends Club. He rather matter of factly shot 69-67-72,
raising a few eyebrows in the process.
The next time out of the gate, Donnell tied
for the individual championship at the Adams Cup in Massachusetts.
Reeking of confidence, he was annoyed the tournament didn’t
allow a play-off for the sole title as he was certain he
would have won.
So much for the freshman jinx. This guy could
really play, maybe there is some kind of Tiger Wood exception
to college transition woes for the young men who drive the
ball 300 yards and putt with radar precision. Or so it seemed.
“My swing started getting a little off and
I began to think about it,” says the modest Donnell. “The
more I thought about it, the more I began to tinker with
it and pretty soon I had made golf too complicated. I started
trying to not play bad instead of trying to play well.”
Competitors and spectators alike can easily
see that is a recipe for disaster but when something like
that happens to an 18-year old. He had his own set of circumstances
setting in toward the end of the fall season and early in
the spring tournaments.
“I think when I first got to campus,” Mark
recalls, “golf was what I was concentrating on. By November
there’s a lot more class work and ‘school’ to occupy your
Donnell defines himself as a “feel player”
rather than being one of those golfing robots that rely
on hundreds of hours of professional tutelage on the practice
tee. “I felt a real sense of urgency about my golf at the
time,” Donnell says.
“I suppose everyone comes in wanting to be
the guy who helps turn the program around. I probably was
not much different.”
So it was that Mark Donnell, the September
flash, became infected with the common mid-season malaise
called mediocre golf. And what does one do to cure the golfing
blahs? You visit the doctor, of course.
“I started playing better as soon as I had
a talk with Mason Rudolph (VU’s Director of Golf),” Donnell
says. His advice is so simple but you know it’s valid because
he’s been there before. He helped me start thinking better
on the course, to quit putting so much pressure on myself.”
Among the sage advice, Mark remembers Rudolph
telling him that “everyone goes through slumps and they
always come out better than when they went in.”
Slowly but surely, things began to turn. His
swing started to come back and he managed two good rounds
at (Alabama), then had another good 18 at Auburn. He was
still a little inconsistent but was headed in the right
Old times came back to Donnell at the recent
Southeastern Conference Championships. The slender ball
striker found himself on the SEC leader board the entire
tournament, finally finishing eighth in the talent-laden
As he now goes through finals week and looks
ahead to the immediate summer and a bright future on the
links, Donnell is brimming with enthusiasm and confidence
“I’m planning to play in a number of amateur
tournaments around the Southeast this summer,” he says,
“including the Southern Amateur and the North-South at Pinehurst.”
He thinks he’s once again primed to a run
at the top and credits his intense collegiate experience.
“Playing college golf gives you an advantage,”
Donnell reasons. “We play 36 holes in a day at many events
and you develop endurance doing that. You learn to focus
longer. And I think you gain confidence by realizing that
anything is possible on a golf course.”
He wishes there were more college rounds left
to his freshman season and can’t wait for September and
the chance to tee it up once again for what could easily
be Vanderbilt’s finest men’s golf team ever.
In the meantime, he’ll rest easy knowing that
the doctor is always right. You are stronger after the storm.