Authors Note: This article appeared last Spring before the Men’s Mason Rudolph Invitational. This Weekend, the Women’s Golf Team hosts their tournament honoring Rudolph.
Today, the #4 ranked Vanderbilt Men’s Golf team beings it’s four day home tournament, the Mason Rudolph Invitational at Legends Golf Course. It is one of two tournaments named after the former Vanderbilt Head Golf Coach. The Women’s team also hosts the eponymous tournament in the Spring.
Fittingly, the tournament features six teams from the state of Tennessee. It is the state Rudolph represented so well throughout his professional golf career and his life.
Rudolph, an amateur prodigy and an accomplished touring professional was not a Commodore graduate. But, he was an important and essential champion for Middle Tennessee Golf, someone who used his platform to lay a foundation for the Vanderbilt Golf Program. Born in Clarksville, going to undergraduate in Knoxville, then Memphis, Rudolph embodied golf for the entire state.
Edgar Mason Rudolph was born in Clarksville, TN, on May 23, 1934. By the time he was 13 he was winning the club championship he caddied at. In 1948, at the behest of some of the men he caddied for, Rudolph qualified for the US Junior Amateur and made it to the semifinals of match play. The next year, Rudolph was a finalist, and by 1950 he had won it. In 1951 & 52 he won the TSSAA golf titles.
The same year, Rudolph qualified for the US Open at Merion Golf Club. When he arrived, he took the practice putting green only to be kicked off because he looked like a caddy and not a tournament participant.
After high school, Rudolph went to UT in Knoxville but only lasted a year. He transferred to Memphis to play golf. During his time at Memphis, Rudolph was chosen as a member of the 1957 Walker Cup Team. The US won the tournament 8-3 with Rudolph contributing half a point in his foursome match.
After two years at Memphis, he joined the Army. After two years in the Army, Rudolph won the Armed Forces Golf Championship, in 1958. He immediately turned pro and joined the PGATOUR.
His first tournament was the 1959 Golden Gate Championship, which he won by two strokes over Don Finsterwald and Bob Goalby. Yup, he won his first tournament on TOUR. He was a -9 275 shooting 67, 69 on the weekend. It vaulted him to win the Rookie of the Year.
Rudolph won four more times on TOUR with his last victory coming at the 1970 Green Island Open Invitational in Columbus, GA. He defeated Chris Blocker by two strokes 274 on the week with an opening round of 75 (!). He followed the +3 round with a 68 and 67, but to come from behind, he shot 64 on Sunday, undoubtedly breaking Blocker’s heart.
His most famous TOUR victory came in 1966 at the Thunderbird Classic at Upper Montclair Country Club in Clifton, NJ. Rudolph defeated Jack Nicklaus by one at the time when Jack was the hottest player on TOUR. Rudolph posted a pallindromean 69-70-70-69 for a four day -10.
His best finishes at the Majors were a fourth place finish in the 65 Masters and fourth place and third place finishes at the 64 PGA Championship and the 73 Masters. He never played the Open Championship, which wasn’t uncommon for American touring pros at that time.
Mason was selected to participate in the 1971 Ryder Cup contested at the Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis. The Americans won the event 18.5 - 13.5.
Rudolph contributed 1.5 points going 1-1-1 in his three matches. He played Foursomes and Fourball with Lee Trevino where they halved against Brian Huggett and Tony Jacklin then won against Christy O’Connor and Brian Barnes. The next day, Rudolph lost his singles match 1-Down to Barnes.
In his 23 year professional career, Rudolph made $600,000, won five times, finished runner up seven times, and placed third nine times. He carded 95 top tens and 233 Top 25’s. He made 409 cuts of his 430 starts and ran a streak of 52 events placing in the money. One of his most unique stats is his streak of 105 tournaments without hitting a ball out of bounds.
Rudolph’s career as a TOUR player is solidly successful, but it is his relationship to the state, and most importantly to Middle Tennessee that signifies his legacy.
Rudolph was a five time winner, winning in ‘56, ‘59, 63, 64, 66, and 72. He also won the Tennessee PGA Championship in 1969. In 1990, Rudolph was elected into the Tennessee State Golf Hall of Fame.
His hometown of Clarksville has named the nine hole course he grew up on after Rudolph. It is a 2,008 yard Par-30. It is a perfect municipal golf course that is accessible to all ages, playing firm and fast. It has rolling hills and minimal trees, allowing for mishits and lots of angles to recover.
Mason Rudolph returned to Middle Tennessee in 1992 where he served as the head coach of the men’s team until 1997. In 97, Rudolph was promoted to Director of Golf over both programs until 2002, totaling ten years as the Commodore of Vanderbilt Golf (I’m sorry, that pun was just sitting there looking at me).
When he passed on April 18, 2011 Women’s Head Coach Greg Allen told Vanderbilt News, “Mason had a very special way of touching lives and his impact will never be forgotten. We had a chance to have dinner with Mason and Carol last year before the SEC Championship. There is no doubt that his presence and his inspiring golf stories that night helped motivate Marina Alex to win the Championship. Our prayers are with Carol, his sons Mason and Griff, his grandkids and all of those that loved Mason Rudolph.”
Just three years later, Vanderbilt Women won their first of two SEC Championships.
In 2001, when it became evident that Rudolph was closing his tenure with Vanderbilt, the Mason Rudolph Invitational was established. Since 01, Vanderbilt has won the tournament five times, the most of any school. Since current head coach Scott Limbaugh took over in 2012, the Commodores have won the tournament four times and finished runner up once. Individual Vanderbilt Champions have included Brandt Snedeker in 02, Luke List in 04, and John Augenstein in 2018.
In his obituary, the New York Times described Rudolph as a “meticulous craftsman” who resembled an “owlish schoolteacher.” In retrospect, it is fitting that Rudolph was not part of the glamour of the 1960’s golf scene. He was a hard working military man from Middle Tennessee. His success came through careful strategy as much as it did his talent. And when his run on the TOUR was finished, Rudolph came back to Tennessee to bring his name and his experience to a burgeoning golf powerhouse.
It is easy to look back at the late 90’s and early 00’s as not that long ago, but the changes to Vanderbilt, the SEC, and Nashville, let alone the changes in golf makes those years feel like the stone age. Rudolph played an important role in staging Vanderbilt for future success.