Charles Perkins introduced his grandson to golf when he was only 3 years old.
Modifying a set of Ben Hogan clubs for the little guy to use, Perkins spent the early years of his retirement in Palm Springs bonding with his daughter’s son while also teaching him the game.
Those were seminal times in the development of Cal Poly senior Geoff Gonzalez, who never really looked up to any golfers on the pro tour but is proud to have modeled himself after Perkins.
It’s why Perkins’ death in 2008 hit Gonzalez hard. It’s why coming off what would be his worst collegiate season — the only one where he was not invited to an NCAA regional — forced him to reevaluate his love for golf.
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“That was the moment when I took a deep look inside and said ‘What do I want to do with golf?’ ” Gonzalez said. “I rededicated myself, worked harder than ever, and to win the state championship after that was so gratifying. And ever since then, I’ve known that this is what I want to do.”
The state championship was the 98th California State Amateur Championship. Less than 10 months after the death of his grandfather had him questioning how much he wanted to go to the course, Gonzalez was a co-medalist and won the match-play title at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City.
Gonzalez said his proudest golf achievement afforded him opportunities he otherwise would not have had these past few years in his pursuit of a professional career.
Another breakout performance in his final collegiate event — this week’s NCAA Championships in Stillwater, Okla. — could get him even closer to realizing the epiphany spurred by the loss of Perkins.
“It can open a tremendous amount of doors for him,” Mustangs head coach Scott Cartwright said of the national championship, a three-day tournament beginning Tuesday at Karsten Creek Golf Club. “But he can’t be thinking about that.
“I want him to just go out there and have some fun and not think of it as the big stage. It’s just another golf tournament. You’re going to have all this other stuff around you. You’re just going to have to block that out and do what you do.”
Gonzalez did all of the above in a stirring comeback to become the first Cal Poly golfer to advance this far into the postseason.
In a feat that grabbed the attention of NCAA.com in addition to local media, Gonzalez jumped 22 spots on the final day of last week’s regional at Colorado National Golf Club in Erie, Colo., with a torrid birdie streak in the home stretch.
Needing to finish as the top individual placer not on a qualifying team, Gonzalez shot a final-round 66 on the par-72 course, including four straight birdies on the last four holes.
Gonzalez birdied five of the last six holes and nearly aced his final tee shot to all but ensure his one-stroke lead for fourth place and the regional’s only at-large berth to the national championship.
Gonzalez was only 1-under for the round after the front nine, but with five shots to make up the rest of the way, he still had hope.
“There was a bunch of people around,” Gonzalez said about teeing off for the back nine, “and I think everyone had pretty much ruled me out by then. But I just looked at it as, ‘Hey, the wind is kicking up. I can post a good score on this nine, and who knows?’ ”
Without the benefit of live scoring, Gonzalez really didn’t know how far back he was. Thanks to his web-enabled cell phone, Cartwright did, but the coach chose not to share that information to help prevent the suspense from building.
When Gonzalez lined up his tee shot on the No. 9 hole, his last of the day, he needed a birdie on the 220-yard par-3 to avoid a playoff for the berth, one of only six awarded at regionals throughout the country.
Gonzalez and Cartwright conferred. They chose to use a 3 iron to drive the ball over a lake and to the left, letting the wind carry the ball back to the right and toward the hole.
Gonzalez lifted the shot, knew he hit it well, and when he approached green, he saw the ball sitting on the lip of the hole.
No playoff needed.
“It was exactly what I envisioned in my mind,” Gonzalez said, “and to pull it off, it just felt really good to know I can look at a shot, see it and then hit it. As a golfer, that’s one of the highlights of the game.”
Though he becomes the first Cal Poly golfer to advance to the national championship, Gonzalez will finish behind former Cal Poly great Travis Bertoni on the school’s major statistical lists.
Gonzalez ranks second in career average (72.59 shots per round) to Bertoni (71.70), who capped a four-year career in 2006 with Cal Poly’s Co-Male Athlete of the Year Award and a No. 4 all-time ranking nationally with 11 tournament wins.
A Paso Robles High alumnus who still remains close to Cartwright and the Cal Poly program, Bertoni is now playing on the Nationwide Tour.Regardless of how comparisons to Bertoni turn out, Gonzalez decided years ago that he wants to be where his predecessor is.
Cartwright said he has the ability and the mental makeup to get there.
“His accomplishments are right there with Travis Bertoni,” Cartwright said. “Travis went to the NCAAs four times but never made it to the finals.
“Geoff is a very, very good player, and unfortunately he doesn’t get a lot of coverage just because he is at Cal Poly. But he’s one of the best players in the country.”