DUCKS PLAY FOR NCAA TITLE WEDNESDAY ON HOME COURSE
EUGENE, Ore. — The Oregon men’s golf team will play for the national championship, and they’ll do it on their home course.
And they’ll do it thanks to a clutch putt by a hometown kid.
South Eugene High graduate Sulman Raza sank a putt at No. 18 as twilight fell over Eugene Country Club on Tuesday, clinching a win for the Ducks over Illinois in their NCAA championship semifinal match and sending the UO men on to Wednesday’s final against Texas. The Ducks and Longhorns will tee off at 2:10 p.m.
The Ducks, who saw their 2010 and 2012 seasons end in the NCAA tournament’s match-play semifinals, have secured the first finals berth in program history. They beat LSU in the quarterfinals earlier Tuesday, with Raza and senior Zach Foushee each winning both of their matches in the quarterfinal and semifinal.
“This is what we practice for,” Foushee said. “Everything we dream of is right here. We’re ready to do it.”
Foushee could only watch and agonize with a few hundred other Oregon supporters as Tuesday’s semifinal came down to the wire. Foushee won his semifinal match 5 and 3, and UO freshman Edwin Yi won 5 and 4, while Thomas Lim lost 5 and 3 as Oregon took a 2-1 lead with Raza and newly crowned NCAA individual champion Aaron Wise just past the turn in their matches.
Wise led his match for exactly one hole, No. 15, before giving up the lead and then falling 1 down at 16 and 17. But Raza recovered from a tee shot into the water at 16 by winning 17, needing only to halve No. 18 for the win.
“To beat a team like Illinois — and they’re really good — to beat them without Aaron counting is just incredible,” UO coach Casey Martin said.
Raza played a huge part in helping the No. 20 Ducks defy the odds and beat the No. 4 Illini. His approach at No. 18 went into a greenside bunker, while his opponent reached in two. There, Raza responded with the shot of the tournament, a delicate sand out that ran a few feet past the hole, settled and then rolled back down a gentle slope to within 3 feet.
Raza was facing Illinois’ top finisher from the tournament’s four rounds of stroke play, Charlie Danielson. He had about 15 feet to make birdie and win the hole after Raza’s sand shot, but his putt spun around the hole and out, leaving Raza with his 3 footer to win the match for Oregon.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt my heart beating faster and harder than that,” Raza said.
When the putt dropped, the partisan crowd surrounding the No. 18 green erupted. UO assistant Van Williams led the fans in a cheer — “When I say ‘go,’ you say ‘Ducks’!” — and Raza was mobbed by his teammates.
“It’s just incredible to have this many people come out and watch us,” Raza said. “Couldn’t ask for a better fan base than here.”
Raza came into the NCAA championships third in stroke average for the Ducks this spring, but he was the fifth-place finisher among the five UO players in stroke play, wrapping up his final round Monday with three straight bogeys.
In the coaches’ draft that set up Tuesday’s pairings, Martin did Raza no favors, pairing him against the best stroke-play finisher from both LSU and Illinois. Raza responded with wins over both, including the second that wrapped up Oregon’s spot in the final.
“He tends to rise to the occasion,” Martin said. “He was kind of all over the place, but he hung in there and made a few clutch putts — none more so than the last one.”
Yi was the Ducks’ only player to lose in Tuesday morning’s 3-1-1 win over LSU. He looked to be in trouble right off the bat in the semifinal, too, chunking both his second and third shots at No. 1. But Yi improbably holed out a chip to save par and halve the hole, then won four straight beginning at No. 3.
“Once that chip went in I was like, wow, what a way to start your round,” Yi said. “Definitely momentum was on my side after that.”
Foushee, meanwhile, carried over his hot finish from the quarterfinal, in which he won the final four holes to come back from being 2 down with four to play. In his semifinal, Foushee never trailed, sinking a chip from the fringe at No. 9 to go 2 up. He poured it on from there.
“The ball just wanted to go in today,” Foushee said. “It was awesome.”
Last Friday, Oregon opened the NCAA championship tournament with a round of 11-over 291, in danger of missing the cut. But after Raza’s clutch putt Tuesday, the Ducks are a match away from being crowned national champs for the first time ever.
“Now we’re starting to really believe it,” Foushee said. “We’re there. We can do it.”