EUGENE, Ore. – Stop us if this sounds familiar: A Pac-12 team wins the NCAA Championship after going to multiple extra holes down the stretch.
A week after Washington outlasted Stanford in the women’s final, it was Oregon’s turn, outdoing Texas in the men’s tilt.
It was both more and less dramatic. The Huskies had the hole-outs galore, an experience that didn’t materialize as much for the Ducks. Oregon, though, had a winning putt, and, you know, the fact that it won as the host school on its home course at Eugene Country Club.
“I mean, I’m here (at Eugene Country Club) every day, and so I’m either on the range, the golf course or in the card room every day,” said Casey Martin, Oregon’s head coach of 10 years. “So to get to have that experience is just – it’s just so special.”
The victory was the school’s first national title in men’s golf. Come to think of it, Oregon made school history just by reaching the final, as the Ducks had never done that since the tournament changed to a top-eight match-play format in 2009 (they had twice made the semifinals, in 2010 and 2012, but fell both times).
But something was different this week. Well, not from the get-go. In the first round, Oregon, Golfweek‘s No. 22, played closer to its ranking than its host status, getting out to only a tie for 19th in the 30-team field.
Martin gave his team just a bit of a kick in the rear end, and all was good the rest of the week.
The Ducks stormed up to a tie for fourth the next day and stayed comfortably inside the bubble, finishing stroke play in sixth place – well within the top eight to make it to match play.
Then, after an early deficit to defending national champion LSU in the quarterfinals (Oregon trailed all five matches in the opening holes), the Ducks remained positive and turned it around in a 3-1-1 victory. They then took down juggernaut Illinois, 3-2.
It set up a final with top-seeded Texas, Golfweek‘s No. 1 team and the winner of the stroke-play portion of the NCAA Championship. The match came down to the wire.
It was heading toward a 2-2 tie when the deciding match, between Oregon redshirt junior Sulman Raza and Texas sophomore Taylor Funk, would reach a dramatic crescendo.
Funk led 1 up through 16, but Raza, who grew up in Eugene and like his coach graduated from South Eugene High, made a par putt to knot it up going into 18. On the final hole of regulation, Funk made a 5-footer for par to extend the match and keep Texas’ hopes alive.
Raza bombed his drive down the first playoff hole (No. 10) and hit a crisp approach within 4 feet. He had that putt to win the national title, but he missed.
Somehow, he was not crestfallen.
“Casey (Martin) just came up to me and said, ‘All right. Good try. Don’t be hard on yourself. Just get ready for the next hole,’ ” Raza said.
Funk actually would have a 10-footer for birdie on the second extra hole (No. 18) but misread it.
“The putt I had earlier to extend the match went a little left, and that one I played right center, and that’s when it broke off a little bit to the right,” Funk said. “When you’re on these greens and you’re just a couple of inches off, the reads can change quite a bit.”
Given a new chance on No. 10, what did Raza do? The exact same thing, only with a different ending.
Bombed drive, beautiful approach and a short putt for birdie. This time it was 6 feet.
Raza had made a 4-footer for par the previous day to send the Ducks into the final, and then added another memory when he knocked in this one to end it all.
“It’s a putt I’ll never forget. It’s something I’ll always hold on to, to remember,” Raza said. “Once I saw the ball go in the hole, I went nuts and kind of blacked out.”
Raza is a hometown kid, and this must feel like a dream. In fact, he said it kind of did, citing that the mood felt like, ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played,’ a tale of Francis Ouimet winning the U.S. Open in his hometown of Brookline, Mass.
” ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played;’ that’s what it felt like, just having everybody rushing the fairways, circling the green,” Raza said. “It felt like a movie.”
Martin called it “a surreal experience.”
“I was like, Look at this. This is like the golf movies, and it was just like it, and it ended well.”
Despite the home-course advantage, the Ducks didn’t get an easy match-play draw, but they did catch a break when Beau Hossler, Texas’ star player and Golfweek‘s No. 3, was unable to play in the final and had to concede his match. The Longhorns junior had injured his left shoulder the previous day, and the pain proved too much for him to play in the final. His forfeit put Oregon up, 1-0.
But the Ducks still had to win two of four matches against the No. 1 team in the nation – and a school that already boasted three national titles. Oregon’s Edwin Yi, a freshman, downed Gavin Hall, 4 and 3, to start the action.
Individual national champion Aaron Wise of Oregon – the Ducks became the first team to sweep the individual and team national titles since UCLA and Kevin Chappell in 2008 – couldn’t handle a Scottie Scheffler onslaught that included six birdies in a 4-and-3 win. Then Thomas Lim fell to Doug Ghim, 2 and 1.
But Raza held up, and for the eighth time in eight tries, the No. 1 seed failed to win the NCAA Championship in this match-play format. There’s no question the home-course advantage helped Oregon. Ducks fans showed up in droves all week, and they weren’t a quiet bunch.
“Go Ducks!” chants were present even during the semifinals, several sizable roars emanated from the property during Wednesday’s final and the fans rushed the 10th green after Raza sunk his winning putt.
“To see just the pressure and the drama and have it unfold on a place that I call home,” Martin said, “Eugene is a special place, and the University of Oregon has got so much support here, and I knew people would show up if we gave them a reason to.”
With a crowd largely new to college golf, though, there was a moment of trepidation. After Funk missed his putt to win, there were at least a few fans who audibly cheered, usually a big no-no in golf.
But the losing opponent had nothing but kind words for the large crowds that showed up this week.
“I’m excited for college golf,” said John Fields, Texas’ head coach. “I mean, what they got there today, it was absolutely awesome. These guys, they love that competition. They love to have people care about them, and that’s what happened this week.”
This is no question a special win in college golf. It’s one thing to get a bid accepted and make it to the national championship when you’re hosting.
It’s a whole different level to make match play – which, by the way, the Oregon women did last week, too – and then a much higher level to then go win it all. The Ducks are just the fifth men’s team to win as host and the first to do so since 1989.
How rare is it to win the individual and team titles as host? It hasn’t happened since 1945 – Ohio State and John Lorms pulled it off – and that was the only other time it ocurred.
But Martin never would have tried to get his team to host if he didn’t think something special could happen.
“I didn’t put a bid in – it costs a lot of money to put these things on, and so I didn’t do that without feeling like we had a legitimate chance,” Martin said. “Looking back, it was something I’d obviously do again because it propelled us to where we are at right now.”
Take the trophy home, coach. You won’t have to go far.