To look at Mark Anderson, his blond hair long and beach-boy disheveled, seemingly ready for summer, you never would suspect an intensity about golf that used to produce emotions ranging from “cocky” (his word) to “ballistic” (his former coach’s word).
To look at his record for South Carolina’s golf team this year — a team-best seven top-20 finishes in nine stroke-play tournaments, including three top-10s — you wouldn’t imagine the senior from Beaufort once saw golf as “a burden ... being on the course wasn’t fun anymore.”
And to hear USC director of golf Puggy Blackmon and golf coach Bill McDonald sing Anderson’s praises as team captain, it’s hard to picture Blackmon once screaming at him, or McDonald telling him five months ago to “get his act together or ride the pine.”
Anderson laughs at the seeming contradictions. Today in Chattanooga, Tenn., at Council Fire Golf Club, site of the NCAA East Regional, he and his teammates are the nation’s No. 12 team, seeded third and — coming off last year’s surprise West Regional victory and 11th-place NCAA Championship finish — no longer flying under the radar.
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Joining USC in Chattanooga will be Coastal Carolina, the East Regional’s No. 20 seed and Big South Conference champion. In the West Regional at Bremerton, Wash., Clemson will be the No. 5 seed.
Life, Anderson said, is good. “The best moments are playing in postseason tournaments,” he said. “The atmosphere is electric, very intense. And maybe the best moments are yet to come.”
However his final weeks at USC play out, Anderson can’t say it was ever dull. Nor can his coaches.
“I call him ‘Bookend,’” McDonald said. “He’s been solid throughout this season, and Mark embraced the senior leadership (as captain). But his game was always on the streaky side before this year.
“He raised expectations from his great success (third-team All-American) as a freshman, but then ... I won’t say he got lazy, but he put a lot of pressure on himself, and he wasn’t quite ready for it.”
When Anderson showed up at USC with a sometimes spectacular game and an attitude to match, Blackmon did all he could to maintain his cool. He recalls one memorable exchange at that fall’s Carpet Collegiate Classic in Dalton, Ga.
“Vintage Mark Anderson: Went at every flag, didn’t break 80,” Blackmon said. “We had a powwow afterward about sticking to the game plan, not making mental errors, and (Anderson) said, ‘I didn’t make any mental errors.’”
The “conversation” got heated, Blackmon said, “and (Anderson) wasn’t doing a lot of the talking.” Erik Johansen, a senior at the time, nearly had to separate the two.
The problem, Anderson said, was that when golf wasn’t “easy,” it sometimes became unbearable. He didn’t handle losing, or disappointment, well. Once, after “screwing up” a chip shot, assistant coach Mike Burcin saw Anderson ready to break his wedge. “The look in his eyes — thank goodness (the wedge) wasn’t a machine gun,” Blackmon said.
That, Anderson said, was immaturity and a roller coaster of emotions. “You should be cocky when you’re playing well,” he said. “But you have ups and downs, and I had to learn to work hard, put my head down and do it.”
USC’s inconsistency didn’t help. The Gamecocks floundered much of those two years, and Anderson sometimes thought, “Man, what am I doing out here? I’m not helping the team.”
An influx of talent, led by then-freshman George Bryan IV, helped turn around the team, and Anderson’s attitude, late last season. Blackmon also turned over the helm to McDonald, a younger coach who practiced “tough love” with Anderson.
At Christmas, McDonald told his senior he was a logical choice as captain. But Anderson had not earned a spot in USC’s first fall tournament, “and while the guys looked up to him, if he was sitting at home, we were in trouble,” McDonald said.
Anderson has not been out of the starting lineup since. He has not finished worse than a tie for 18th since February.
“I’m disappointed I couldn’t play as well as my freshman and senior years in the middle two,” Anderson said. “But I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t gone through those struggles.”
The Gamecocks have finished fourth or better in their past five tournaments, and at the SEC Championship, Bryan tied for second while Anderson was 15th, with teammates Mark Silvers (seventh) and Warren Thomas (12th) in between. The team placed second, its best league finish since 1998.
“The past two years, we had one or two guys play well and the rest, including me, struggled,” Anderson said. “Now it’s one of those teams that, 30 years from now, people will say, ‘That was one of the best at USC, top to bottom.’”
If not ... well, Anderson can handle that now.
“This year has been the most fun,” he said. “The relationships, all the great friends (on the team) — this year has been a blast.”
And who knows what may yet come?
Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.