Editor's note: Marina Alex began her sophomore season on a strong note by tying for second at the Mason Rudolph Championships on Sept. 25-27.
Competing in the NCAA Championships as an individual, making a U.S. Open appearance and having a strong showing at the U.S. Amateur. All of the accomplishments would be enough for a solid career for a lot of golfers, but for Marina Alex, it was just a summer's worth of work as an 18-year old.
Marina, a sophomore at Vanderbilt, is not your typical teenager.
Vanderbilt women's golf coach Greg Allen has coached many good players, but there are a select few that have stood out beyond the others, and Marina, along with current LPGA players Lorena Ochoa and Natalie Gulbis, is one of them.
"There are about four people that I've coached that I've had a feeling about when they hit a shot that something special could happen, and she is one of them," Allen said.
For Marina, getting her game to this level did not come without a lot of work. That work began as a child when her father, Steve, an accomplished amateur golfer in New Jersey, would take her and her younger brother to the driving range.
"My dad got my brother and I started when we were four, and we would play and hit balls in the summer. He'd take us to the driving range all the time. I think I was seven at my first tournament."
Marina learned the game from her dad, but she also learned much more than just how to hit a 5-iron or pitching wedge.
"Marina has watched me play golf my whole life, and watched me compete," Steve Alex said. "I've found a way to lose a golf tournament every way there is to lose, and that really makes me qualified to be a terrific instructor for her because you learn a lot from losing. Marina has seen all that, and I've taught her from my failures."
She found a love of golf early, but it wasn't until high school that Marina began to realize she was becoming pretty good at it. Her rise in golf prompted her to give up her other favorite hobby at the time: competitive dancing.
"It was a lot of fun, but I was better at golf then I was a dancer, so I decided I would do what I was good at," Marina said. "I really liked to go to the range, but I didn't take it seriously until I realized I was decent at it."
Marina was more than just decent at Wayne Hills High School in Wayne, N.J. She was the top high school player in the county, including boys. Like a lot of high schools in New Jersey, Wayne Hills did not sponsor a girl's golf team, so in order to play, Marina had to make the boy's team, which she did.
She was the only girl on the team and usually the only girl in the field at tournaments, but it didn't matter to Marina, who won the county championship as a junior and senior. The only state-sponsored girl's event was an individual girl's state championship, which Marina won twice.
"I was never really expected to do anything, so I just went out there and played," Marina said. "There was no pressure on me to win these tournaments so it was nice to beat the boys up a little bit."
A lot of golfers can have a good round or two, but it takes a special talent to win--a talent that can't be taught.
"She is able to remain in the moment, and she is able to not really get that excited when things speed up on her when she is in contention," Steve said. "Having that quality is just something you can't teach."
Marina carried her high school success over to college, where she began her Vanderbilt career by finishing sixth at the 2008 Mason Rudolph Championship.
However, from there her play began to slip below her standards and she didn't record another top-20 finish until April.
"She got off to a good start in our tournament and didn't have a great start to the spring season, but I think that a change came for her sometime in late March or early April," Allen said. "We set her down and talked to her about having a better attitude on the golf course. Early in the spring, she would let a bad shot get her down."
By the time the SEC Championships began, Marina's game was beginning to take flight. Through two rounds, she was in fourth place, and if not for carding a final-round 79 to finish 17th, she may have won medalist honors.
She didn't finish the SEC Championship as strongly as she would have liked, but the transformation of her game had already begun, and it wasn't just because of an improvement to her swing.
"I'm not going to lie, school ended and so did the stress that came with it," Marina said. "The last couple of tournaments of the spring season, I know all of us were just swamped with school work getting ready for finals. The fact that we could go to SECs and not have to pick up a book and not have to worry about taking an exam was beautiful."
Marina went on to tie for fifth at the NCAA East Regional, which earned her a spot as an individual in the NCAA Championships, where she tied for 37th. In June, she qualified for the U.S. Open by finishing fourth in her sectional. She concluded her summer at the U.S. Amateur, where she was second through stroke play before being eliminated in the first round of match play.
"It was more than I hoped it would have been," said Marina of her summer. "The U.S. Open was my main goal, and if I got there I would have been really satisfied with my summer, and I was."
She has experienced a lot on the golf course, but even she got caught up in the experience at the U.S. Open.
"Everything was going fine and practice rounds weren't that big of deal and then the first day came," Marina said. "I had an afternoon tee time, and I got there at 11 and it was crazy because there were so many people there. I got to the first hole, and it began to sink in that it was actually happening. The emotions all built up.
"I usually focus on keeping calm and keeping my emotions together, but nothing can really prepare you for playing in the U.S. Open except by playing in it."
Beyond experience, what Marina got from playing in the U.S. Open was a boost in confidence that has made every other tournament seem ... not so U.S. Open-like.
"It is good that I got there when I did just to get a tournament like that under my belt so when I get back there, which I have full intentions of doing, it won't be as intimidating," Marina said. "It helped me a lot. Every tournament since then has seemed a lot easier and less stressful. It is a different feeling."
And that feeling is a good one for Vanderbilt's golf team this season.