VISTA, California -- It’s easier for Christopher Colla to shake the winter rust off his golf game now than it was growing up in Fond du Lac, but mid-season form continues to be a work-in-progress.
The Chico State sophomore chased it Tuesday through the ups and downs of Shadowridge CC that proved as literal as they were figurative for Colla in his first start of the spring season on a gorgeous morning at the Cal State University-San Marcos Fujikura Invitational.
On his first hole, he ripped a drive just off the fairway on the second hole and had a pitching wedge into the green on the 381-yard par-4. He walked away with a triple-bogey 7.
On his last hole, Colla pushed his drive into the right rough on the 545-yard, par-5 first hole, punched short of a greenside pond, chipped on and lipped out his 12-foot putt for birdie. He tapped in for par to close out a 5-over-par 77 that left him tied for 15th in the 79-golfer field.
Colla played his final nine holes in 1-under-par after a rocky start. Unfortunately for the 2014 WIAA Division 2 state champion, it wasn’t enough to keep his Wildcats ahead of Cal State-San Marcos, which shot a final-round 295 to top Chico State (299) by one shot for the team title.
“I hit the ball well all three rounds,” said Colla, who shot 72-73 in Monday’s 36-hole opener and was tied for eighth place entering the final round. “I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but you kind of have to expect that out here. The greens are difficult. A lot of times you’re lagging it from 8 to 10 feet, when usually you can give those a run. I’m reasonably happy. It’s a solid finish.”
Chico State, an NCAA Division II school located about 170 miles northeast of San Francisco, has high hopes for a return to the NCAA Championships this spring. The Wildcats lost in the match- play final to St. Leo (Fla.) at the 2016 championships, but were passed over for a bid in 2017.
They ended the fall season ranked 11th in the Golf Coaches Association of America national rankings and 18th in the GolfStat.com poll. Although it came up one stroke short against a San Marcos team that dropped out of the top 25 in the final poll last fall, Chico State finished 10 shots ahead of Cal State-Monterey Bay, which is ranked eighth by the GCAA and seventh by GolfStat.
“I always tell them they have to put us in position to win the tournament because that’s where you get the most experience,” Wildcats coach Nick Green said. “Whether we lose or win some of these things, hopefully toward the end of the season we’re playing better in the final rounds; we’re getting more comfortable with it. It’s a golf tournament; it’s not supposed to be easy.”
And it wasn’t.
Chico State would like to have had a mulligan on the par-4 13th hole. Two of its scoring golfers, Josh McCollum (73) and Serge Kiriluk (77), made triple-bogeys there and another, Colby Dean (78), made a double-bogey. Its four scoring golfers were a collective 6-under after that.
“We start the day with a three-shot lead and we get off to a slow start,” said Green, whose team finished at 12-over 876. “It was nice to see we had some fight and made some birdies, but ...”
The way the day unfolded served as a cold reminder to Colla of one of his weaknesses.
“We’d like to see some better starts from him,” Green said. “He usually gets behind and then he brings it back. That’s a testament to the fight that he has, but you don’t always want to play from behind. We’re working on those things, but he’s a grinder.”
Indeed, that’s the kind of final round it was for Colla, who “caught a flyer from the rough” with his approach shot on his opening hole that, compounded by a three-putt, led to his triple-bogey.
“I just had to buckled down and try to make pars,” said Colla, who bogeyed three holes in a row making the turn, but then didn’t make a mistake the rest of the way. “I relaxed a little bit, kind of got into it. We were a little tight to start off, maybe a little nervous as a team. You just have to get into the flow of the round and, once that happened, we played a little bit better and gave it a run.”
Colla, who successfully navigated college golf's so-called off-season with help from Fond du Lac club pro Don DuChateau and his new sports bar/simulator facility while home over winter break, will now have a month off before his next event at the Tom Tierney Pioneer Shootout, in Fullerton, California.
By virtue of his top-15 finish, Colla is guaranteed a spot for that event. But even he knows he’ll have to play well to keep it.
“We’ve really got six guys that can play the (No.) 5 spot,” Colla said. “That’s why it’s so important to qualify for the tournaments. And then once you qualify for the tournaments, (it’s important) to finish in that top 15 and get that exemption to the next tournament. This year, I hope to be just a consistent player. I’m not the kind of guy who hits it far and makes a lot of birdies, but (I’m) the guy who shoots 71 or 72 every round and makes a lot of pars and is that steadying ship.”