Joe Dodson, Contributing Writer
The VCU golf team is counting on experience as they set out to defend their 2019 Atlantic 10 tournament championship title this spring, despite coming out of a longer-than-expected offseason.
“Our college experience is all about playing, competing and being on the road,” senior Kristian Tannum Donaldson said. “The whole coronavirus situation definitely put a damper on that, but everyone is buzzing for the season.”
The team was on their way to the Mission Inn Spring Spectacular tournament in Florida last March when they learned that their season was canceled due to COVID-19. The team was coming off a sixth-place finish at the Cleveland Golf Palmetto Intercollegiate tournament in South Carolina.
“We’re heading to Florida with some positive thoughts and swings,” junior Clifford Foster said. “And then COVID hit.”
Due to the Atlantic 10’s July 17 announcement, postponing fall sports to the spring, the team trained during what would have been competition time. Tannum Donaldson said the fall offseason was a good time for the team to get closer as a group.
“I definitely think that it’s brought the team closer,” Tannum Donaldson said. “Everyone is looking out for each other and each other’s health.”
Foster said the team had no problem maintaining their competitive spirit during the offseason. The players spend time in practice competing against each other in intrasquad matches.
“Everyone on the team just loves golf,” Foster said. “They love being out on the course and competing.”
Coach Matt Ball said having the fall off gave the team a unique opportunity to focus on fitness. The VCU alumnus, who has spent 22 seasons coaching the Rams, said he was impressed with the professionalism his team showed in the offseason.
“My guys are rock stars, they did a fantastic job,” Ball said. “They realize that things happen in life that you have no control over and we are always talking about worrying about things you can control.”
VCU returns five golfers, including Tannum Donaldson, a two-time all-conference selection that notched a career best 71.79 scoring average over 19 rounds last season.
The team lost one of its top talents as last season’s scoring leader and 2019 all-conference selection Ian Peng transferred to the University of South Florida.
Foster returns after having surgery in August to fix a torn labrum injury from last January. He is now cleared to play and said he has been practicing.
“It was perfect timing with COVID,” Foster said. “I got really lucky with that.”
The returners have combined over 300 rounds of collegiate golf experience. Junior Adrian Vagberg recorded a 72.37 scoring average over 19 rounds last season, which was the sixth-best scoring average over a season in program history
“It’s quite an experienced team now everyone knows how to handle the situation,” Tannum Donaldson said. “We’ve all won the A-10 together and gone to the NCAA regionals, so we have experiences of what it’s like to succeed at the highest level.”
Ball has two new additions to the team, including Radford transfer Peter Gasperini. The senior was the Highlanders’ scoring leader over the past two seasons. Gasperinini had a 72 scoring average this past season over 18 rounds and notched four top-10 finishes.
“He is a very good golfer and knows the game very well,” Foster said about Gasperini. “He has a great outlook on golf and works super hard. He is one of the hardest working golfers I’ve ever seen.”
The team also welcomed freshman Joe Retford from Wiltshire, England. Retford won the West of England U18 championship in 2019.
“Joe comes with a good pedigree from over in England,” Ball said. “Great golf swing, and he’s played a lot of really high-level golf over there.”
Ball brought on professional golfer Kevin O’Connell as an assistant coach. O’Connell has collegiate experience from his times as a golfer for the University of North Carolina. He participated in the 2019 Masters and the U.S. Open Championship of the same year.
“We were excited for him to come. He is gonna be an awesome part of our team,” Foster said. “He knows the game of golf at every level.”
The team will participate in seven tournaments before playing in the conference tournament, slated for April 30 through May 2 at the Reunion Golf Club in Orlando, Florida. There will be several familiar courses, including the Golden Horseshoe Intercollegiate tournament in Williamsburg, Virginia, where VCU finished fourth out of 16 teams in 2019.
“It’s been a while,” Foster said. “But we are super excited to be back.”
VCU will travel to Georgia to play in the Invitational at the Savannah Harbor from Feb. 20-21.