This past season, McDonald’s Gamecocks reeled off a string of top-three finishes and then tied for second in their NCAA regional to reach Atlanta’s Capital City Club for the NCAA Championship. Their arch-rivals, meanwhile, failed to qualify for the finals.
And while McDonald has had some of USC’s best players – brothers George Bryan IV and Wesley Bryan, to name a prominent pair – this year might be the start of a golden era for the Gamecocks. The squad that finished 27th in Atlanta consisted of one senior (Dykes Harbin) plus two sophomores and two freshmen, including first-year phenom Matt NeSmith, who shot a 66 in the NCAA final round.
“We’ve got good depth and a good (recruiting) class coming in,” McDonald said. “I hope we can get on a run. (Freshman) Will Starke took a little time to come into his own, but he shot a 68 at the regional. So we’re doing some good things. I don’t know when we’ve had a better class since I’ve been here.”
McDonald moved to Columbia in 2006, hired as associate head coach by then-head coach Puggy Blackmon, McDonald’s former boss at Georgia Tech, where he was a two-time All-American. “I knew coming in (that he would replace Blackmon after two seasons); that’s what Puggy and (then-athletics director) Eric Hyman and I talked about,” he said. “I’d learn the trade and if we did well, we’d go from there.”
McDonald’s scariest challenge to date hasn’t been recruiting or coaching, though. He was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia not long after taking over, “and that’s never an easy thing to deal with,” he said. “I was lucky that I had a great assistant in Mike Burcin (now head golf coach at Wisconsin), because the first six months on medication, with all the travel, was tough.” Fortunately, CML is treatable with Gleevec, which spared McDonald from chemotherapy and/or bone marrow treatments. He’s been in remission for more than three years.
One reason the Gamecocks are still establishing themselves on the national scene is because – unlike Clemson – they have produced no high-profile PGA Tour players. But McDonald thinks that might be changing soon.
“(Web.com Tour player) Mark Anderson is on the verge,” having won May’s BMW Charity Pro-Am in Greenville, “and the Bryan brothers could break through,” he said. “We’ve got some guys out there who, if they hit it at the right time, could be stars.”
Down the road, NeSmith will be a candidate to do that. For now, McDonald has him for at least a couple more years – probably enough time to keep his coach’s national profile on the rise.
Hometown: Dalton, Ga.
Bio: Two-time honorable-mention All-American at Georgia Tech; was 1988 NCAA Championship individual runner-up; played professionally in South Africa and Canada as well as PGA Tour and then-Nationwide Tour; assistant coach at Georgia Tech and golf instructor, 1996-2006; USC associate head coach, 2006-07; head men’s coach, 2007-present.
Highlights: Named to Georgia Tech Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995; coached USC golf team to seven tournament titles, including 2007 NCAA West Regional; recruited and coached four of school’s 10 all-time leaders in scoring average, topped by No. 1 George Bryan IV (72.37 average); earned five NCAA regional bids in six seasons, including 2013, where the Gamecocks finished 27th (of 30) at the NCAA Championship.
Where I play: “Locally, my favorite course is Camden Country Club. I just appreciate it the more I play it. It’s a great place to take my kids (sons Trace, 11, and Tyler, 8); they can top the ball 100 yards, run it up on the green and think they hit a great shot. I love the history, the old-school feel. I also like Woodcreek, and a course I think is underrated is Columbia Country Club. It’s always in good shape, and I enjoy going out there.
“My favorite resort course instate is Harbour Town. I won the 1983 Junior Heritage there, and it makes you shape shots both ways. Also in the Lowcountry, Secession is hard to beat; how you play is so dictated by the wind. It’s what I call a fun walk, just pure golf, a great shot-making course and a beautiful place to play. I also like Palmetto a lot. Iit’s a lot like Camden, like going back in time.”
Where I eat: “In Columbia, I’d say (my favorites are) Garibaldi’s, Devine Foods and ‘The Pig,’ Palmetto Pig – that place is awesome. If I want a nice dinner with (wife) Tanya, I love the flounder at Garibaldi’s. Devine Foods is like my second home, we go there a lot as a team and take the staff. I think Columbia is an underrated food town. Mr. Friendly’s is really good, Saluda’s is good, and so are Ristorante Divino and Motor Supply in The Vista.
“Out of town, when I’m in the Lowcountry, I’m a big seafood guy. I try to find a hole-in-the-wall joint, and I love oysters. Last year at the PGA (Championship, at Kiawah’s Ocean Course), I ate with (former Georgia Tech teammate and Golf Channel host) Tripp Isenhour, and we had some great seafood at Shem Creek. I think the name of the place was Red’s Ice House, but you can’t miss finding a great place there.
What I do for fun: “I’m getting my boys into fishing, and we do that a good bit when I’m not on the road recruiting. I like to take them fishing or out to play golf; I’m getting them interested I that. Even since my (leukemia) diagnosis, I’m more health-conscious, so I’ve run some half-marathons, but I had a stress fracture in one recently.
“I also enjoy yard work – it’s sort of therapeutic. I used to hunt birds a lot, but Tanya made me get rid of my hunting stand. And we go to (USC) football, basketball and baseball games – though football season is a big recruiting time for us, so those can be some long days.”