Oregon cast overcomes obstacles to secure NCAA title

Oregon cast overcomes obstacles to secure NCAA title

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Oregon cast overcomes obstacles to secure NCAA title

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EUGENE, Ore – Freshman Edwin Yi went out first for Oregon in Wednesday’s match-play final at the NCAA Championship, and with the sizable Eugene contingent awaiting around the first tee box, he was feeling the pressure.

“On the first tee, Edwin said, ‘Coach, I’m really nervous. Can you walk with me?’ ” said Van Williams, Oregon’s assistant coach.

With a chance for a national championship at home, Williams, of course, obliged. He would walk with Yi for the entire match, which would last only 15 holes. Not because Yi succumbed to his nerves. Nope, he trounced Gavin Hall, 4 and 3. After Texas’ Beau Hossler had forfeited his match because of a shoulder injury he incurred the day before, Yi’s win put the Ducks up 2-0 on the Longhorns and within one point of the title.

Later in the evening, the Ducks would close out the match, 3-2, when hometown boy Sulman Raza rolled in a 6-foot birdie putt on the third playoff hole of his battle with Taylor Funk.

As Oregon senior Zach Foushee noted, it was a dramatic way to finish. But don’t mistake the victory for having been inevitable or expected.

The Ducks entered the NCAA Championship at 22nd in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and hadn’t won an event since the season-opening Husky Invitational. Yes, they served as hosts at the 2016 national championship, competing on a Eugene Country Club layout that the players see three times per week. But, first, the host has to get to nationals. There’s no home-course advantage on the NCAA regional stage, yet the Ducks passed through (finishing second as the top five from the region qualified).

Once qualifying for nationals as a host, a team still faces a long slog through a plethora of top challengers to win it all. Oregon became the first host to do so since Oklahoma won at Oak Tree Country Club in Edmond, Okla., in 1989.

And then there’s the Ducks’ roster makeup. Yes, the winners boasted an emerging star this year in Aaron Wise, Golfweek’s No. 7 and the 2016 individual national champion thanks to a two-shot win in Eugene. For everybody else, though, the road to the title has had at least one sharp detour.

We’ll start with Raza. If Eugene’s hosting of the NCAA Championship were a year earlier, the junior not only wouldn’t have made the winning putt, he wouldn’t have been playing at all.

That’s because Raza redshirted his 2014-15 season. As Oregon head coach Casey Martin explained, Raza needed more time to focus on school.

“Well, he was in a little different major that required some afternoon stuff, and golf was so busy all time that he was going to struggle to graduate in four years based upon that,” Martin said. “We were really deep last year, and he wanted some time to get better and stronger.”

Next, Thomas Lim. The senior developed a 101-degree fever on the final day of stroke play at the 2016 NCAAs, and he was ailing for the remainder of the tournament. On the first day of match play, he had to complete 36 holes while still sporting that 101-degree temperature.

“I made it through the first match,” Lim said. “but the second match was a death march for me.”

He was feeling a little better for Wednesday’s final, but certainly not 100 percent. Understandably, Lim lost his final two matches, but his halve of Luis Gagne in the quarterfinals was key to a 3-1-1 triumph over defending national champion LSU.

Foushee had neither a redshirt year nor a fever to worry about. But he did have to sit out the final on account of his being matched against Hossler. While the senior noted that Texas may have delayed the timing of the announcement to keep the opponent on his toes – “I think Beau maybe knew (Tuesday) night. So he might have milked (the timing of) it a little bit” – he did prepare all along as if he would play, and he only officially got word of the forfeiture some 20 minutes before the match was scheduled to start.

That stung. Doubly so because he had more than 30 family and friends in town to watch him play. He wouldn’t immediately gather his bearings after learning of his sitting, starting out by following Wise, and then bouncing around, not knowing where to go.

But he eventually figured it out.

“It wasn’t easy at first,” Foushee said. “But I realized I couldn’t do anything about it, and it got us a point.”

And last, we circle back to Yi. His inclusion in the lineup this week appeared to be the most unlikely. In fact, Brandon McIver would have been the one expected to secure the remaining spot.

The senior was a key starter on the roster during his entire time at Oregon, a veteran player who one might have assumed he would be on the roster for nationals. But McIver’s results suffered this year (his scoring average jumped from 71.62 in 2014-15 to 74.00 this season), and didn’t improve by late spring: four straight T-50 finishes or worse as a starter from Southern Highlands through the Pac-12 Championship. In a qualifier for the NCAA Tucson Regional, the fifth and final spot in Tucson came down to McIver and Yi. The freshman won in a playoff.

“It was tough for me and Brandon,” said Foushee, McIver’s roommate, “but I’m happy the way it ended up.”

Yi would make the most of the opportunity. He closed in 67 at the regional to place T-22 and ensure that his team advanced home to nationals. He was in the top 10 after two rounds in Eugene, too, including going birdie-eagle-birdie at one point in his second round (he would finish stroke play tied for 60th).

Then, after losing 2 and 1 to Zach Wright in the quarterfinals, Yi demolished Illinois’ Edoardo Lipparelli, 5 and 4, before the trouncing of Hall.

“He’s not scared to fail,” Foushee said.

Clearly. Yi is a subdued soul who came into college as a typical freshman: timid, immature and struggling to transition. But he has grown in all of those phases after doing the required work.

Yi said he still is adjusting to college life as he ends his first year. But even before he closed out Hall, coaches – who value Yi for his work ethic and never giving them trouble – hailed him as the ideal newcomer.

“I told him down the first fairway in the final, ‘You’re exactly what Casey and I want. If we could get 100 freshmen like you, we would be so happy,’ ” Williams said.

A day earlier in the semifinals, Williams, who used to coach basketball at Wake Tech, Shaw University and Cape Fear Community College, led some spirited “Go Ducks!” cheers with the hometown crowd. The next day, he took the opposite approach.

As Oregon’s Raza and Texas’ Funk walked on the first playoff hole (No. 10), Williams strode down the right side, holding the hand of his youngest son Jake, 4. The assistant coach had his wife, Dani, and three of their four children on hand for the final (9-year-old Connor had a baseball game).

It was a family affair close to home. Playing as host with a supportive crowd can bring added tension, which Oregon proved in opening to a tie for 19th after the first day of competition.

But adversity isn’t new to these Ducks. After that first day, they did everything right, and it meant a special conclusion.

“It’s just a storybook ending,” Foushee said. “You can’t draw it up any better.”

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