At the same table sat Vanderbilt golf’s past and present.
A year ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., just prior to the Southeastern Conference women’s golf tournament, Marina Alex, a sophomore golfer for Vanderbilt at the time, went to dinner with women’s golf coach Greg Allen and Mason Rudolph and his wife, Carol.
For nearly 20 years, Mason Rudolph, a native of Clarksville, had been a fixture of Vanderbilt golf, coaching the men’s team from 1992-97, before being named director of golf and then taking on an emeritus role in 2002.
But on that night, he was a storyteller and a teacher, and Alex just sat back and listened.
“She was like a sponge, taking in all the stories and all the wisdom that he had to provide for all of us,” Allen said. “She just used that as great motivation that week and went out and won the SEC championship. ... She admitted that was a huge part of that week for her — having a chance to really get to know Mason and hear some of his stories up close and personal.”
That exchange was a sample of the sort of imprint Rudolph left on the golf programs at Vanderbilt and across the state of Tennessee. On Sunday, he died at the age of 76 due to heart complications. Rudolph had been in the hospital for more than a week in Tuscaloosa, where he lived for the last four years. He moved there from Nashville to be closer to his son and grandchildren.
He was back around Vanderbilt last September at the Mason Rudolph men’s and women’s golf tournaments at the Legend’s Club in Franklin, where it has been held for the last 10 years. Shortly after that, in November, he suffered a heart attack and underwent an emergency bypass surgery.
“It was one of those things you wish you had talked to him on a daily basis and you regret that you didn’t,” Vanderbilt men’s golf coach Tom Shaw said.
Rudolph was a staple in Tennessee golf, playing and coaching here collegiately while also representing the state at the professional level. In 1990, he was a charter inductee into the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame and in 1995 he was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
“Mason will be missed greatly by many, many people,” Tennessee Golf Foundation president Dick Horton said. “He was the best possible representative for the game of golf in Tennessee, and you won't find anybody that didn't have the utmost respect for him as a person.”
Rudolph’s love affair with golf started early and in 1950 he became the youngest golfer to compete in the U.S. Open. That same year, he won the USGA National Junior Amateur Championship. While at Clarksville High school, he won consecutive state championships in 1951-52. He played collegiately at the University of Tennessee and Memphis State (now the University of Memphis) before he spent time in the Army.
In 1959, he was named the PGA’s Rookie of the Year and began a 21-year career as a touring professional. During that span, he won five PGA events, played in 15 Masters and 16 U.S. Open Championships. He was also a five-time champion of the Tennessee State Open.
Then in 1971, he achieved one of golf’s biggest honors when he played in the prestigious Ryder Cup, representing the U.S. in victory alongside golfing legends Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and J.C. Snead.
“He wasn't going to be one of those guys that was going to show off all that he had done,” Shaw said. “I was really impressed with his humility and demeanor in life. As a coach, that is a pretty good disposition to have. He was always positive and willing to lend a hand but never so sold on himself. He was a very, very decent man.”
The lessons he taught at Vanderbilt carried over with golfers after their collegiate days — as is the case for former Vanderbilt golfer and current PGA Tour professional Brandt Snedeker.
"Mason was instrumental in helping me become a better golfer, but more importantly a better person,” Snedeker said. “Mason and his wife Carol were out at practice nearly every day, and he was always smiling and had a great outlook on life. ... I'll miss him more for who he was as a person.
"This is a sad day for Vanderbilt and anyone who loves golf.”
That feeling resonates across the board — at Vanderbilt and around the state. While he was respected as a golfer and teacher of the game, the way he approached the sport and life made more of an impact to those who knew him.
“The guys felt very comfortable going to him and picking his brain. The guys felt like he was as much a part of the program as I was,” Shaw said. “If he needed to make some corrections in either a player's behaviors or game, he did so in a way that was down home that didn't come off as condescending. That was the only time I ever saw him take the smile off his face, but it was done in a loving way. You could just see that coming through. He was the same way every day.”