DENVER — Ben Harding felt the pressure as he teed off on the 18th hole of City Park Golf Course on Tuesday afternoon.
The Silver Creek junior needed to just make par on the final hole of the Class 4A state golf championship to secure his individual third-place finish amid the classification’s toughest competition. He did just that.
His performance vaulted the Raptors to a third-place team finish to tie Cheyenne Mountain with 447 cumulative strokes. Harding took home the individual bronze with 141 strokes over two rounds, which was good for 1-over par and three shots behind 4A champion Brentyn Paiz of Windsor. The finish was a welcome reward for a year of hard work following his sophomore season when he placed 18th in a field of 84.
Still, he was hungry for more.
“It definitely went a lot better and I definitely feel like I’m a lot closer with my game now than I was last year. I definitely improved in a lot of areas, so that’s better this year,” Harding said. “I learned what I needed to work on for next year. Coming down the stretch, I need to work on a little bit more consistency on my swing and where the shots are going with the long clubs. That cost me a lot of shots. But I feel like I did a good job of handling my emotions. I putted pretty well so I feel like I did everything I could.”
Though Harding had graced the state stage before, he felt the nerves that always accompany playing with such high stakes. He and coach Tyler Bishop, however, think this top-three mark is only the next step in what he can really achieve for his senior year.
“Man, Ben’s a great player,” Bishop said. “I think what he’s put in all year, I would say he left a lot out there, left a lot to be desired. … I think the work he’s put in, this is indicative of where he should have been.”
Harding was far from the only local athlete to make the St. Vrain Valley School District proud. He wasn’t even the only top-10 finisher. Frederick senior Jake Chesler and Niwot’s Christopher Gunlikson achieved a similar feat as they finished fourth and sixth, respectively.
Chesler was no stranger to that position. In fact, Frederick High had never quite seen anyone like him, as he’s finished in the top-10 of the 4A tournament every single year of his career.
On Tuesday, he overcame a string of bad holes from the day before to raise his stock eight spots on the leaderboard. This time, his maturity on the course helped him overcome the mental side of the game that might have held him back before.
“Yesterday, I wasn’t really hitting the ball as good and I was actually even through my first 14 holes yesterday, and I just finished with four bogeys in a row, so that didn’t really help because I really wasn’t playing that bad,” he said. “It put me five shots back coming into today, which would’ve come into play today. Today, especially on the back nine, I feel like I was making every putt, my tee shots were OK and my wedge shots were pretty good throughout the tournament.”
The confidence he’s spent four years building gave him the edge on day two, and he was able to recover some of the shots he lost. His fourth-place tie came at 2-over 142.
“He was the first placer (in school history) and now he can say first for everything,” coach Chris DeSantis said. “A kid like that, he’s a cornerstone in a program, makes it so everyone else can work harder around him.”
Gunlikson, on the other hand, attributed all of his success to staying focused on the task at hand. The Longmont Christian senior admitted that overcoming mental blocks has served as the greatest boon to his game, and he saw that result play out in real-time on day two.
“It felt much better. I stayed in the moment the whole entire time today,” Gunlikson said. “I didn’t lose track of focus. I was putting out of my mind today and I was chipping really well, so I was really happy about that. … Yesterday, I started thinking about the results and stuff like that. Today, I just kept thinking about the process of every shot instead of looking ahead in the future.”
He, too, fine-tuned his approach on the second day of competition after completing the first day tied for 12th alongside Chesler. In the end, he tied for sixth just one stroke behind his Frederick counterpart at 143.
“It’s just maturity and believing in himself,” Niwot coach Ed Weaver said. “He thought he could hit the shots for the last couple of years and now he knows he can hit them and he did. He executed extremely well today.”