All golfers at some time or another fall into a slump. They get into a rut and it seems that no matter what they do or how hard they try, they can’t seem to break out.
Of course, good players – the ones with talent and a fierce competitive spirit – battle their way back to the top.
University of Arizona senior Chris Nallen falls into this category.
Last June, Nallen was riding high. He had just been named a first-team All-American after his junior season for the Wildcats, then got his summer amateur schedule rolling with a victory at the Northeast Amateur and a tie for fifth at the Dogwood Invitational. He was among the first to be named to the 2003 U.S. Walker Cup team.
Life was good, but it also was about to change.
Nallen would not have another top-10 finish the rest of the summer, and he failed to qualify for the 64-player match play field at the U.S. Amateur. He was still struggling in September at the Walker Cup at Ganton Golf Club in England. Down and depressed, but a true team player, he told U.S. captain Bob Lewis to bench him the last day, hoping it would help lead the team to victory. It was one of the toughest decisions he ever had to make, but he knew he wasn’t at the top of his game.
“I definitely was in a slump,” Nallen said. “Nothing seemed to be going right. I wasn’t driving the ball well, my iron shots were off and my putting was just horrible. I kept trying as hard as I could, but nothing worked. It became very frustrating.”
The frustration continued when he returned to Tucson to begin his final college season.
Nallen opened the fall schedule by finishing outside the top 15 at his first three events, including a tie for 42nd at the Golfweek/Ping Preview. Then, at the Jerry Pate Intercollegiate, Arizona’s final stroke-play event of the fall, he opened with a 75.
“In the second round (at the Pate) something just seemed to click,” Nallen said. “I don’t know what or how, but all of a sudden things started to fall back into place, especially with the putter. I had been hitting my iron shots fine all fall, but could not make a putt. Now the putts were falling.”
They haven’t stopped since.
Nallen shot 68 in the second round and closed with 62 to earn his first top 10 of the fall, a tie for ninth.
Just that quickly, his game had returned. Nallen was his old self again.
Following the Pate, he posted a perfect 3-0 individual record at the Hooters Match Play Championship in Myrtle Beach, S.C. A couple of weeks later, he played in the Western Refining College All-America Classic in El Paso, Texas, an individual event that features 24 All-Americans from the previous season. All he did there against the country’s best players was shoot 66-63-67 to win by six strokes, the largest margin of victory at the event in 24 years.
After an offseason spent working with instructor Roger Knick in West Chester, N.Y., Nallen returned to Tucson in January and got more instruction from Arizona coach Rick LaRose. In preparing for the spring season, Nallen broke 70 in every practice round, including a course-record 13-under-par 58 at the team’s home course, Arizona National Golf Club.
“I think I learned a lot from some of those tournaments I didn’t play well in, mainly to limit your mistakes,” Nallen said. “I really didn’t make any major changes with my swing. I think the big thing was confidence.
“Once I started playing better, I became more and more confident with myself and my game. I think that was the main thing.”
That confidence reached new heights Feb. 2-3 during the Wildcats’ first spring tournament – the Ping/Arizona Intercollegiate at Arizona National.
Nallen opened the event with a competitive course record of 8-under 63, then followed with rounds of 64-68 for an 18-under 195.
Not only did he win by five strokes and set the 54-hole tournament record, he registered the lowest 54-hole total in the history of the Arizona men’s golf program.
More importantly for Nallen and LaRose, it helped lead the Wildcats to a 10-shot victory and a tournament-record score of 28 under par.
“Chris is a great player and a team leader,” LaRose said. “He went out there . . . and took care of business. He had a few bad holes, a few bad breaks last fall, but over the last few months, he’s played as well as anyone in the country. He’s playing like I know he can play, like he knows he can play. You better believe he’s back.”
Right now, no one can argue that point, least of all Nallen.
“Right now, I’d have to say I’m playing the best golf I’ve ever played in my life,” Nallen said. “I also know that in order to keep it going, I’m going to have to keep working hard and keep trying to get better. After what happened earlier, I know that things can go south on you in a hurry.”
For now, though, he’s just enjoying the ride. In the process, he has tossed his name back into the mix for college player of the year honors and the Ben Hogan Award, which goes to the nation’s top college/amateur player.
Chris Nallen went through his slump, and has returned to the top of college golf. This time, expect him to stay there.