GRAND JUNCTION — Kailer Rundiks and company combed through the rough, dying crabgrass and weeds on the dark side of the fairway like a search party walking through the woods. But they couldn’t find it.
His two Denver East golf coaches were looking, his Grandview opponent Danny Taggart and his coaches came over to help search — heck, even Rundiks’ grandma Margaret was even looking for that stinkin’ golf ball.
And even though the golf ball search party retrieved both a Titleist II and III ball, the Titleist VI ball Rundiks crushed off the eighth hole tee at Bookcliff Country Club was nowhere to be found.
"He rarely doesn’t locate a ball," Margaret Rundiks said. "He always finds them, even in the worst situations."
After five minutes went by, Rundiks hit a provisional ball, which is another ball played by a golfer who lost or shot the ball out of bounds. It was a one-stroke penalty and he teed off again — an unfortunate plot twist in Rundiks’ journey through the course’s front nine holes, headlined by an eagle on a 541-yard par five. But Rundiks took a frustrating situation and turned it into a bogey.
"I’m more proud of the bogey he made on No. 8 than the eagle on No. 1 because after losing a ball off a tee, out of bounds, the only way you’re going to make a decent score is to essentially birdie the hole on your second ball, and that’s exactly what he did," Denver East golf coach Quinn Hornecker said.
"To be able to do that after hitting a bad shot is the bounce-back stat, meaning, are you able to bounce back after a bad shot or hole? And the fact Kailer does that is special and it sets him apart from other players."
The Denver East junior made his third appearance at the Class 5A boys golf state tournament and capped off the first day on Monday with a 2-over-par 73.
"It was kind of a hard start because I was plus three in three holes," Rundiks said. "But with the help of my coaches, I rallied back through the next fifteen, where I was one under. Besides my first three holes, I was pretty solid."
He added: "I've shot a 77 all four rounds (of state golf), so this was my best round."
And Rundiks has been playing the best golf of his life lately. He just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity competing with both professional and amateur players at Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach — a PGA TOUR Champions event — where he actually beat a pro.
"I filled out an application and then I was selected," Rundiks said. "The pro I played with was Craig Stadler."
Stadler won the Masters Tournament in 1982.
Rundiks, who has played basically every sport in his life, took a special liking to golf early in life from watching Tiger Woods play on TV. He also had his own set of plastic golf clubs when he was a tot.
"Golf is more interesting to me because when you play, you’re not playing on the same field all the time, you’re playing different courses," Rundiks said. "You’re never going to have the same thing happen to you. Like baseball and basketball, it’s the same old diamond and court every time.”
He hopes to play golf in college out of state, either in Florida or California, where he can play year round — "and be by the ocean," he added. Margaret, who accompanied Kailer on his Pebble Beach trip with his mother, Krista, said he was awestruck by the beauty of the course and kept looking out to the ocean.
He aspires to go pro as well.
"He's a tremendous talent," Hornecker said. "You watch the kid hit balls and you know he's a good player, but really his putting game is what's impressive. From inside ten feet, the kid's an automatic putter, which is the name of the game. He's a blend of physical talent and mental strength, and that's crucial for a good golfer."
Rundiks got into some very tough situations on the first day of the tournament, but he stepped up to the challenged and showed just how mentally tough and aggressive a golfer he really is.
"There was a lot of tension today," Margaret said. "And he just kept persevering and was very calm.”
He'll enter the final day of the tournament in a six-way tie for seventh place, with six players above the pack. Senior teammate Joseph Madden is also representing the Angels and shot a 78 in the first round.
The leaders of the pack
Rock Canyon's golf team is so deep, Nick Caldwell had to have a round of playoffs with three of his own teammates to grab the fourth and final slot to play in the regional playoffs.
"He's been so zoned in during the playoffs and regionals and now he's carrying it right on over to the state tournament," Rock Canyon coach Dave Vahling said. "And I told him if he kept on playing that way, he could probably win state."
And Caldwell's odds are looking decent at the end of the first day of the 5A tournament. He kept his composure throughout the entire first round to fire off a 6-under-par 65 that puts on top of the individual leader board.
"Oh, it was fantastic," Vahling said. "I've never seen him play better. He only missed two greens, and he made two or three from more than 20-feet from the pin."
Caldwell had five birdies, an eagle and a bogey.
Tie at No. 2
Eaglecrest's Davis Bryant and Highlands Ranch's Kyle Pearson are tied one stroke behind Caldwell with a 5-under-par 66. Each player respectively had six birdies and a bogey.
Team race to the title
The race for first in team strokes is on! Regis Jesuit leads the chase after Day 1, with 220 strokes. But Rock Canyon follows closely behind with 222, and Caldwell has also been playing out of his mind.
Fossil Ridge and Highlands Ranch are knotted at 225 and Lakewood lingers in the No. 5 slot with 227, followed by two more sets of ties: Arapahoe/Cherry Creek at 232 and Fairview/Fruita at 234.
Fairview's four players didn't have a stellar day on the greens today, and only senior Daniel Pearson managed to break 80 with a 2-over 73. But the Knights are already planning on making their comeback on the second day of the tournament and haven't given up on a team championship just yet.
"14 team strokes isn't a huge gap in high school golf," Pearson said.
Team title is still very much up for grabs.