As reigning DI golf individual champion Bryson DeChambeau chases the green jacket in the 80th rendition of The Masters this weekend, Chico State is chasing something that has been 50 years in the making themselves.
Their last DII National Championship.
1966 was the last time Chico State won a national title on the links. Head Coach Dr. Hal Bishop led Jess Crawford, Bill Barkhurst, Earl Behrens, Jim Olsen, Ron McElroy and Rob Shultz to a dramatic last day comeback giving Chico State their first ever golf title. Unfortunately it would also be their only one to date.
50 years later, the college game has changed pretty drastically. That 1966 team played 72 holes of stroke play to capture the championship, sparked by a final day that saw them overcome a four-stroke deficit. Today’s collegiate golf is a tenuous multi-day grind that sees three rounds of stroke play leading up to medal match play to capture the National Championship.
Chico State is ready for that as their newest cast of seniors have their sights set on bringing that title back to the West Coast.
“It would be real special,” Chico State head coach T.L. Brown said about winning the title again 50 years later. “Rob Shultz came and spoke to the team about their experiences when they were here. Back in 1966 college golf was totally different than it is now. You had DI and you had small colleges. A lot of those teams they competed against that championship season are basically now Division I programs.
We’re having a big celebration this next Thursday, a 50th Anniversary celebration. We’re going to relive some of those memories and talk about the comparisons with both teams, but to honor what those guys did with Dr. Hal Bishop 50 years ago. It would be a great story if we could get it done.”
Chico State reached the No. 1 slot in the April 1 GCAA Coaches Poll as the top team in the country. They have dominated their eight tournament appearances thus far, finishing first in four of those and second in the other half. This coming Monday they head into the Hanny Stanislaus Invitational as their last test before the postseason begins with the California Collegiate Athletic Association championships.
“I want us to get better,” Brown said. “Were doing some good things and we’re doing somethings we need to get better at as we approach the postseason. We’re trying to keep it positive and in the present.”
Brown has certainly made Chico State a golf powerhouse in his nine years at the helms of the Wildcats program. His teams have made the NCAA postseason in each of the last eight seasons including three visits to the medal match round in the past four seasons. The Wildcats have been so close for so long, but that National Trophy has remained in the Sunshine State.
“It would be nice to get that national trophy back to the West,” Brown said. “I’m for the CCAA, but I’m also for bringing that trophy back for this little community in Northern California. We’ve been very close for a long time. It’s long overdue. It would be very special for the people in this community to bring back that trophy to Chico State, especially for all those players that were in position to win but we just fell a little bit short.”Much like Dr. Bishop had in 1966, Brown is lucky to have three seniors that are atop their game. Alistair Docherty, Justin Wiles and Lee Gearhart have an endless amount of accolades to their names over the tenure at Chico State. A combined five times, for example, the three have found their names on the All-American list, however there is one thing they don’t have.
That elusive title.
“We have the three seniors with Wiles, Gearhart, and Docherty,” Brown said. “We were in a position to win two years ago and we lost to Barry 3-2 in the semis and last year Nova got us down the stretch a little bit. This year with the three seniors, it was about having more team depth and those seniors really driving us hard to get this National Championship completed.
“They’re all very talented, they all have a lot of college golf experience. They’ve won college events, they’ve won medal match play events, they’ve won huge events in the summer away from college golf. We kind of have an old team and a young team without any middle class-men, and they each bring a different style of leadership to the team which is great. They don’t like losing to each other — that’s what motivates them to play well, but they definitely are all focused on winning as a team. They’re getting smarter, and smarter with the new format that we play.”
That format is unlike the professional golf tour, nor DI for that matter. It is a grind that tests the endurance and depth of any team as much as it tests talent.
“It is a different format and it is very difficult to win the National Championship,” Brown said of the medal match round set-up. “The big thing that a team needs is a lot momentum and a lot of confidence, but also the depth. If your four and five don’t play well, the one through three have the pressure on them. And you have to do that three straight times.”
This year’s Wildcats one through three are arguably as good as they have ever been. Docherty is a two-time All-American who led all players in stroke play en route to last season’s CCAA Individual Championship. Docherty led off the season on the right foot, by starting where he left off and winning the Championship Preview. He currently leads the CCAA in stroke average at 71.78, placing ninth in the country.
Gearhart joined both Docherty and Wiles on the First Team All-CCAA last season. He, like Wiles and Docherty, was also an All-American.
“We all want to beat each other, but we all want each other to play well,” Gearhart said of the friendly competition he has amongst his teammates. “I don’t want to beat Justin or Alistair with them playing badly, I want them to play well and me play just as well if not better. That competition pushes our team. If we’re all trying to beat each other and know we have to play better to beat each other, then we’re going to have a few good scorers per round.”
The three have grown over the years, winning tournament after tournament en route to one of the brightest eras of Chico State golf. They have done it together, and have taken valuable lessons from every time they hit the course.“You learn something from every single tournament,” Gearhart said. “You keep getting stronger off of every tournament and I think that definitely has helped Alistair and myself and Justin form the team that we have now.”
This season has seen more of the same from Gearhart. He ranks third in the CCAA with a 71.91 stroke average, which is good for 12th in the nation. He has three tournament wins this season, putting him at six overall in his career, needing just one more to tie Chico State legend and 2011 NCAA Champion Kyle Souza.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been thinking about records,” Gearhart said. “I’ve just been trying to play my best every single week and if it ends up being good enough to have an individual record attached to it, then that’s great. There’s team records we would like to accomplish, we’re one team victory from tying the Chico State most victories in a season. That’s what were all focused on.”
Gearhart’s work the past few seasons has not gone unnoticed. He is the defending two-time CCAA Player of the Year, and while it may not have been his number one goal to start the season, he humbly understands what it would mean to win that third in a row.
“It would be nice,” Gearhart said. “I take it as a sign of respect, because it’s the coaches that are who vote on that. To be thought highly of in their eyes is pretty rewarding.”
Getting to the NCAA medal match play portion of the championships is no easy task. Three of the top four teams in their region hail from the CCAA. Conference foe and No. 2 in the region Cal State-Monterey Bay is the only team from Florida to win a national title since before Brown took over as head coach in 2007. The CCAA also has two of the top ten teams in the nation with Chico State at No. 1 and Monterey Bay at No. 9.
“Generally the best are in South or Southeast in Division II golf,” Brown said.”We like to go out there and bang heads and play against the best especially so we can find out what we need to do to be the best. The West is definitely right there at the top. The CCAA is one of the top Division II conferences in the nation. The CCAA Championship is just a huge battle, everyone is hungry to bring that banner back.”
50 years is a long time. It is seemingly too long if you ask Brown, Gearhart and the rest of the Wildcats. They made it their mission to be in the position to bring that trophy back to Chico. It’s not simply winning a title for Chico State, it’s representing the 50 years it took to get back on top.
“Every single year you want to win the National Championship,” Gearhart said. “We would have liked not to have 50 years between our National Championships, but the 50th anniversary would be a pretty cool year to get that championship back into Chico. It’s definitely been on our minds.”