Asked to explain his standout senior season at Chico State, and Kyle Souza will tell you about the memorable putt of his life.
On the 18th hole of last year's Division II men's golf final, the native of Livermore, Calif., made a 25-footer, straight downhill with about six feet of break, for a birdie that put him into a playoff for the NCAA Championship.
A playoff win on the third hole would be Souza's first collegiate win. Since then, he has won three more times last fall and added an important recognition to his resume this spring: Being named as one of 28 college golfers on the Ben Hogan award Watch list, annually given to the top golfer in collegiate golf.
"It means so much to me," said Souza, who has a 70.87 stroke average in 2011-12. "Starting when I got to Chico, I really wanted my senior year to be all about golf. Obviously still in school, but it was really important for me to work really hard and to have my name on that list, for me I'm just really proud of the time I put in and the results show that." Souza is one win away from earning the school record for most victories in a season, at a school you may have never heard of. But at tournaments such as the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii, Souza went toe-to-toe with some of college golf's household names. He had a T-6 finish despite a couple "silly bogeys" on the final day, keep alive a streak of seven straight top-10 finishes dating back to last April. More impressively, perhaps, Souza found his name ahead of six players in the Division I top-20 ranking, including Texas' Dylan Frittelli.
One thing's for sure--people are starting to learn more about the tiny school three hours north of San Francisco. Not only was Souza the only Division II player in the country included on the Hogan list, but his Chico State team figures to be among the contenders for a team title. (The Wildcats were ranked No. 5 in the last Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll of the fall.)
"It's great to see him on the list. There's such great Division II players and coaches on this level that don't get talked about," said coach T.L. Brown, who's in his fifth year as coach at Chico State, who walked with Souza at last year's D-II championship. "So when you do break out and get recognized, it's a special time for us. We're trying to have the team remembered, the depth is important to this program to win a national championship."
Brown recalls shedding tears after Souza called him as a high school senior to commit to the Chico State program. It was Brown's first year as head coach, and to be able to lure Souza away from Division I programs such as Fresno State, San Jose State and California, will be a moment he'll never forget.
Thanks to the recognition and elevated play this year, Souza says he has received several invitations into summer amateur events. The invite he's hoping for the most, however, is to represent the United States in this June's Palmer Cup at Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. If not, Souza's plan is to turn pro and hit the road with fellow teammate, Eric Frazzetta, playing state opens and Canadian Tour qualifiers, chasing their dream.
But before that, Souza and Frazzetta, both seniors who've roomed together since freshman year who know each other so well that they "can finish each others' sentences" and also model each others' swings after each other (Souza's never had a swing coach, and attributes watching PGA Tour events in high school to learning how to swing. Growing up on a ranch, Souza and his father set up a net and a hitting mat in their barn. Every day in high school, he would drive to their local golf course to practice on the practice green).
The duo hope to bring home the first title for their program since 1966.
At least, they're giving people are getting a bit of a geography lesson.
"We get asked pretty much every tournament where Chico is. Even from Division II players they don't know where it is," said Souza. "I think slowly everyone's opening their eyes and realizing this is a great program that will continue to grow in the next couple of years."
In no small part thanks to Souza.
*-- Stephen Hennessey