Donnell: Quick Starts & Fast Finishes 5/3/02

Mark 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 nature.

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 mind.”

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 direction.

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 field.

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 about tomorrow.

“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.


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