It crept slowly forward, inhaling the white dots like a real-life Pac-Man gone mad.
Tony Chieffo stared out at the vehicle motoring across the speckled terrain of the driving range at the Sepulveda Golf Courses and recalled his own days as a teen-ager behind the wheel--and plexiglass windshield--of a golf ball-gobbling range picker.
"You're caged in so it's pretty safe unless a ball comes through the bottom," Chieffo said. "You're driving back toward the people who are hitting, so when a ball smashes into the picker, it stuns you."
Chieffo, 23, has stunned a few people himself this season while picking up some new-found respect as a member of the Cal State Northridge golf team, which opens play in the NCAA Division II championships Tuesday at the Tan-Tar-A Resort and Golf Club in Osage Beach, Mo.
Chieffo had never won a collegiate tournament until this season; he now has won four and finished second in another. The soft-spoken senior from Granada Hills has given Northridge renewed hope for its fourth national title, which eluded the Matadors last year when they lost a six-stroke lead in the final round at Bull Creek Golf Course in Columbus, Ga.
"It was one of those situations where nobody played well the whole day," Chieffo said of the Matadors' final-round collapse. "It wasn't the greatest time for that to happen."
The time, however, appears to be right for Chieffo, a third-team All-American last year who has quietly emerged as more than simply a contender this season .
A perennial top-10 finisher throughout his career at Kennedy High, Mission College and Northridge, Chieffo gained his first tournament win in October in a tune-up at Lake Tahoe and parlayed that success into another win in January at the Bill Bryant Invitational at Industry Hills. In March, Chieffo won a District 8 qualifying tournament at Dry Creek in Stockton, and, a week later, won the Anteater Invitational at the Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach.
"I came close a lot last year," Chieffo said. "But when you get your first win, your confidence goes way up."
Those who have watched him develop say Chieffo continues to win because of his improved driving and putting, which have complemented an already strong short game. Mostly, however, they talk about Chieffo's demeanor, which is as consistent as his chipping.
"Tony is pretty even-tempered," said Larry Benson, the head pro at Sepulveda. "He doesn't get too high or too low. You don't ever see him with his chin down. He discusses his round whether he plays good or bad."
John Dudley, a pro at Simi Hills Golf Course, said opponents often mistake Chieffo's low-key attitude for a lack of competitiveness.
"People observe him as quiet and unassuming, but he boils inside," Dudley said. "The thing is, he lets his golf clubs speak for him and that's the best way to do it."
Still, there are some who occasionally long for a more demonstrative Chieffo. Maurice Solomon, past president of the 700-member Sepulveda Men's Golf Club, the Southern California Public Links Golf Assn. and a longtime observer of amateur golf in the Valley, would "like to see Tony get mad once in awhile and see what he's like."
Chieffo, however, refuses to mix his golf stroke with emotional swings.
"Craig Stadler gets mad and I think that helps him," Chieffo said. "But if getting angry doesn't work for you, you shouldn't do it."
While he was growing up, Chieffo often drove opponents mad in two different sports. He spent much of his youth teeing off on pitchers with an aluminum bat at the Little League field and teeing it up with his irons at local pitch-and-putt golf courses.
In high school, Chieffo concentrated on golf, finishing 10th in the Southern California regional tournament his junior year. After graduating from Kennedy in 1982, Chieffo went to Mission College for 2 1/2 years, helping the Free Spirit win the junior college state title in 1984.
"I still didn't feel like I was quite ready for the four-year level," Chieffo said. So, because of his uncertainty, he took a year off from school, worked at Sepulveda and practiced. Chieffo's emergence began after last year's nationals where he finished 13th despite a 4-over-par 76 in the final round.
During the summer, he beat Northridge teammate Wayne Tyni in a playoff at Shandin Hills Golf Club in San Bernardino to qualify for the U. S. Public Links National Championships in Cincinnati, where he lost in the second round of match play.
He also qualified for the U. S. Amateur in Jupiter Hills, Fla., where, despite making five birdies, he shot a first-round 84. Chieffo fared better in the second round with a 74 but still missed the cut.
Those experiences toughened Chieffo, who has won three tournaments by one stroke and the other by 11. A mid-season slump, low-lighted by his failure to qualify for the Cal State Fullerton tournament in February, also made Chieffo a better player.
"That showed me I just couldn't go out and play every day," Chieffo said. "I had to practice to get better."
These days, practice is about all Chieffo seems to do. The economics major feels more than simply at home on the range. As anyone who tries to reach him by phone will attest, Chieffo's home is the range.
"Whenever I call his house, he's out hitting balls," Northridge Coach Jim Bracken said.
Chieffo hopes that the improvement he gains from raining buckets of range balls into the night will help Northridge win its first national title since 1974. The five-man Matador squad that will compete at Osage Beach includes seniors Chieffo, Tyni, Gary Finneran and Bill Cullum--all of whom were part of last year's fifth-place team. Freshman Rick Irwin replaces Pat Boyd, an All-American in 1986 but a redshirt this year.
It was Boyd who, after helping the Matadors to a six-shot lead after three rounds last year, boldly told the local press in Columbus that the Matadors "would really have to blow it to lose."
To prevent a recurrence of last year's disaster, Chieffo wears a Corno on a chain around his neck. The hand-shaped Italian good-luck pendant, a gift from his grandparents, is thought to keep the Mal Occhio (the Evil Eye) from falling upon its wearer.
More than good luck, however, will be required for Northridge to wrest the title from defending-champion Tampa and for Chieffo to succeed in a hoped-for career as a professional golfer. Chieffo's weakness is his strength. At 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, he may need to lift weights to lower his stroke average.
"Tony has the potential to be a successful pro," Dudley said. "But the odds on the tote board would be stronger if he starts to get stronger."
To that end, Chieffo said he is dedicating the summer to practice and physical conditioning. He will attempt to qualify again for the U. S. Amateur and may turn pro to play one of the satellite mini-tours.
For now however, he is focused on helping lead Northridge to the national title. It's a goal that appears well within his range.