May 30, 2016
by Rob Moseley
Photo: Eric Evans
EUGENE, Ore. — At one point Monday, Oregon sophomore Aaron Wise was 8 under overall and four shots ahead of anyone else in the field as he played his fourth round at the NCAA Championships on Eugene Country Club.
A double bogey at No. 12 brought Wise back to even for the day. Four holes later, his tee shot at the par-3 16th found water. His golf ball was wet, but his lead had evaporated, as Wise moved to No. 17 at 4 over for the tournament and tied for the lead.
A gallery approaching 200 people taking advantage of the Memorial Day holiday was following Wise by that point. It was also late enough in the afternoon that Golf Network was broadcasting live. Coming off his second double bogey, the spotlight glaring, Wise was unfazed.
“He looked at me on 17 tee,” said UO assistant Van Williams, who walks the course with Wise, “and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ And you can’t teach that. But he’s got it.”
Wise proceeded to birdie the par-4 17th, rolling in a putt of about 12 feet to put the final flourish on a 1-over round of 71. That left him 5 under for the tournament, good enough to make Wise the individual national champion by two strokes over Rico Hoey of Southern California.
“The crowd was always on my side,” said Wise, who tied Daniel Miernicki for the UO record with his fifth career victory. “I looked at Van on (17) and was like, ‘You know what, we’re still in this. It’s not over.’ From there I was able to hit three great shots and make birdie.”
Wise has announced his intention to turn professional after the NCAA Championships. But despite his title Monday, the pro ranks will have to wait at least one more day, as Wise also helped the Ducks advance to match play against LSU on Tuesday.
“The times I watched him in recruiting, I felt like he had a presence that a lot of kids don’t,” UO coach Casey Martin said. “He’s a very smart, very emotionally mature player. Did I think he would be national champion at 19? No. But it doesn’t shock me.
“Nothing he does golf-wise shocks me. He’s an elite talent, and he’s going place.”
Junior Sulman Raza shot even par to lead the UO men Monday, a warm, windy afternoon that presented the toughest course conditions yet at ECC. Oregon’s four counting cards were a collective 7 over for the day, putting the Ducks 19 over for the tournament and in fifth place, safely within the eight-team field for Tuesday’s match-play quarterfinals.
The semifinal round also will be played Tuesday, with the two surviving squads squaring off Wednesday for the NCAA team title.
At the turn Monday, Oregon’s top four players were even par, and the Ducks had a double-digit cushion between them and the cut line for match play. They needed most of it, as the greens firmed up under sunny skies and approach shots became tougher to stick close.
“You don’t want to play that stretch on the back nine here having to make birdies,” Martin said. “So to have a 10-shot cushion, even though we used a lot of it, that was nice.”
Raza was 3 under and playing a bogey free round until taking bogey on each of the last three holes. Thanks to birdies at Nos. 8, 12 and 15, Raza could absorb that finish and still count a round at even-par 70.
“I definitely had a lot of nerves going into today,” Raza said. “So getting off to a steady start with a few pars, a few up-and-downs, seeing putts drop, it just calmed me down and told me where my game was at.”
Wise’s start was more uneven — he bogeyed the first hole, and didn’t have a par until No. 6. But he played the five-hole stretch between No. 4 and No. 8 at 3 under.
At No. 12, Wise found rough off the tee and sand with his approach, setting the stage for a double bogey. Then, the tee shot into the water at No. 16, following an extended wait that led to three groups standing together at the tee box for a few moments.
But Wise bounced back at No. 17, emphatically pumping his fist after a birdie putt that all but wrapped up Oregon men’s golf’s first individual NCAA title.
“Today was a grind,” Williams said. “It was tough. The wind was up. By far this was the toughest day. You really had to be on your game — and Aaron was.”