EUGENE, Ore. – The home team is one match away from having it all.
Oregon blazed through the defending national champion and then upset No. 2 Illinois all in one day to reach the final at the 2016 NCAA Championship.
It took many of the tricks in their arsenal, but the Ducks, playing as host this week on their home Eugene Country Club layout, are now one victory away from the program’s first team national title.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, but it’s gonna soon, though,” said Casey Martin, Oregon’s head coach of 10 years and a Eugene native.
Early on in the day, such a result appeared unfathomable. Oregon was down in all five matches early in its quarterfinal match against LSU, the 2015 national champion.
“We started horrifically,” Martin said. “There was all of the excitement of elite eight and Aaron (Wise) winning, and then all of a sudden you’ve got to wake up at 5 o’clock the next day.”
But the Ducks didn’t panic.
The match slowly turned and suddenly shifted. Senior Zach Foushee won his last four holes, with help from a chip-in eagle at the par-4 eighth (his 17th). Wise, a sophomore and the NCAA individual national champion, poured in a 30-footer for birdie on No. 7 to close out his match, 3 and 2. The Ducks would defeat the Tigers, 3-1-1.
Somehow, Oregon had come back from what seemed like early elimination.
“I just made a decision that I was going to think and believe the best all day long,” said Van Williams, Oregon’s assistant coach. “I figured any negative thought wasn’t going to help us.”
That mindset carried over into the afternoon against juggernaut Illinois.
Oregon held the lead for most of the round despite being the underdog. Illinois, though, gave one last fight after going down 2-1.
Dylan Meyer, a sophomore, put the fight to Wise all day and chipped in for birdie on 17 to go to the final hole 1 up. Almost simultaneously, senior Charlie Danielson, needing to win 18 to square his match, force a playoff and stave off elimination, hit an incredible second shot from the rough to 25 feet away.
He then hit a beautiful putt that violently rimmed out.
“Charlie’s ball was in the hole,” said Mike Small, Illinois’ head coach.
When Oregon junior Sulman Raza knocked in his 4-footer for par after an excellent bunker shot to win his match, 1 up, it was over. The Ducks had won, 3-2.
Illinois has made it to match play five times in six years, and has failed to win a national title, falling in the last two semifinals. But Small, who will lose Danielson and Thomas Detry to graduation, wasn’t projecting an overhaul in his approach to match play in the aftermath.
“Until we can play defense on somebody, I won’t change a thing,” Small said.
Regardless, it was quite a moment for the Ducks. And it’s tough to describe how special it is to do it at home.
A few times in the afternoon, Williams actually led the “Go Ducks!” chants for the home crowd.
“That was totally spur-of-the-moment,” Williams said. “My roots in coaching were in basketball. I spent a lot of days being able to let my emotions out verbally in practice and in games. I thought the fans deserved a chant.”
Added Martin: “It was fun to get some rowdiness for golf.”
The Ducks are on the verge. They will have to take down top-ranked Texas on Wednesday, but Oregon has the home crowd on its side. Plus, Texas must contend with the uncertainty of top player Beau Hossler, who incurred an injury to his left shoulder late in Tuesday’s semifinals.
A national title hasn’t arrived yet, but even getting this far is a lot for the Ducks.
“To do this at your home place,” Martin said, “it’s magical.”