June 1, 2016
by Rob Moseley
Photo: Eric Evans
EUGENE, Ore. — Track and field is no longer carrying the torch alone at the University of Oregon. And the 1939 men’s basketball Tall Firs finally have some company.
The Oregon men’s golf team became just the third program in UO athletics history to win an NCAA team title Wednesday. Eugene native Sulman Raza won his match in Wednesday’s NCAA Final against Texas in 21 dramatic holes, giving the Ducks a 3-2 win over the Longhorns and a team title to go with the individual championship Aaron Wise won Monday.
“Overwhelming,” UO coach Casey Martin said. “It’s such a great feeling that these kids get to have this experience for the rest of their lives, and I’m just so thankful I got to be a part of it.”
The first-time NCAA finalists from Oregon got an early lead when Texas’ top player, Beau Hossler, had to concede his match against Zach Foushee to injury. Then Edwin Yi continued his amazing postseason by winning 4 and 3 to give the Ducks a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five format.
But as he did in Tuesday’s semifinal win over Illinois, Wise dropped his match. Both Raza and Thomas Lim trailed as they headed to Nos. 16 and 15, respectively. Lim would lose his match at No. 17. But 24 hours after making the putt that sent Oregon on to the finals, Raza put the Ducks’ NCAA title hopes on his shoulders and carried them to victory.
“I just told myself to stay in the moment,” Raza said. “That’s something I’ve been trying to do for the last week. I sometimes get way too ahead of myself, and I kept telling myself to focus on my routine, taking it one shot at a time. It seemed like it paid off.”
A delicate chip from the back of the 17th green set up a putt by Raza that won the hole and brought his match against Taylor Funk of Texas to all square. They halved No. 18, sending the match into extra holes with each man carrying his team’s NCAA titles chances along with his bag.
At the first extra hole, played on No. 10, Raza had a chance to win but missed a putt of about 5 feet. The players returned to No. 18, where Funk responded in kind, missing from about 6 feet out.
The 21st hole of their match went off the 10th tee again, the hundreds of UO fans in attendance running back to the hole in a thundering herd. Raza striped his drive down the middle. Funk was shorter and on the first cut of rough, but had a good enough lie to chip up to about 17 feet out.
Then, the shot of the tournament given the circumstances, as Raza stuck his approach within 5 feet of the pin.
“Having everybody rushing the fairways, circling the greens, it felt like a movie,” Raza said.
Funk had a chance to finish in three, but left his putt about a foot away from the hole. Raza, who made a 4-foot putt to win Oregon’s semifinal, calmly sunk another to win his final, and the Ducks were national champions.
“Knowing I’d done it already I think calmed me down even more,” Raza said. “Once I got over that putt, even though I was so nervous, I knew that I’d done it once and I could do it again. Seeing that ball go in was extremely satisfying.”
The dramatics by Raza, Oregon’s worst finisher during the tournament’s four rounds of stroke play Friday through Monday, could hardly have been more unlikely. The 2012 state high school champion for South Eugene High was a regular in Oregon’s lineup in 2013 and 2014, but he took a redshirt in 2015 to focus on his major, landscape architecture.
Raza had an up-and-down four rounds of stroke play, and was matched up against the top scorers from both LSU and Illinois in the quarterfinals and semifinals Tuesday. He beat them both, then vanquished another foe Wednesday, joining Foushee as the two Ducks who won all three of their match-play pairings over the two days — both of them Oregon natives.
“Since I was 6 years old, we’ve played junior golf together,” Foushee said of Raza. “It was awesome to see him do what he did.”
Nobody would have predicted an Oregon national title run that included losses in both the semifinals and final by Wise, who is turning pro after his amazing sophomore season. But that was the case, as Foushee and Raza played well over both days, and Yi played beyond his years in the semis and final.
Early Tuesday, the Ducks trailed LSU in all five matches. They made a dramatic comeback to win, with Foushee winning his final four holes to dig out of a 2-down hole and get the Ducks a point. Then, in the afternoon against Illinois, Yi set the tone with a dominant 5 and 4 win. Foushee also won to make it 2-2, before Raza won the match with a putt at No. 18.
He needed 21 holes to set the stage for more dramatics Wednesday. But the result was the same. And the Ducks were national champions, their fans pouring onto the No. 10 green to celebrate with them.
“That,” Wise said, “is something I’ll never forget. It was just raw emotion.”