Sulman Raza shakes off severe struggles with driving, fame to lead Oregon back to NCAA final

Oregon’s Casey Martin celebrates with Sulman Raza after he wins his match, advancing Oregon to the finals of the 2016 NCAA Championship. Golfweek/Tracy Wilcox

Sulman Raza shakes off severe struggles with driving, fame to lead Oregon back to NCAA final

College

Sulman Raza shakes off severe struggles with driving, fame to lead Oregon back to NCAA final

SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – For Sulman Raza, it was one of the best moments of his life. But in some ways, he needed to forget.

The incoming Oregon senior had made the putt heard around Eugene, a 6-footer for birdie in a playoff at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club against Texas’ Taylor Funk in the final at the 2016 NCAA Championship. The stroke gave the Ducks their first national title and turned Raza, a Eugene product, into a local celebrity.

“It was a kid from Eugene who did something that will never happen again, at their home golf course,” said John Ellis, Oregon’s assistant coach.

The attention was appreciated but also too much.

“Everywhere I went, people were congratulating me about nationals,” Raza said. “And it would kind of flash in my head what people probably were expecting for me. I was letting that get in the way of my game.”

A year and many growing pains later, Raza is back in the spotlight and you wouldn’t have guessed he ever battled with it.

The defending champion Ducks, by a miracle, made match play again at the NCAA Championship, and did they ever capitalize. Fifth-seeded Oregon went into a long Tuesday at Rich Harvest Farms and came out a survivor, downing No. 4 Oklahoma State, 3-2, in the quarterfinals before turning around in the afternoon and taking down top-seeded and top-ranked Vanderbilt, 3-2, in the semis. (Oregon  will face second-seeded Oklahoma in Wednesday’s final.)

The clinching point both times? Sulman Raza.

Seriously. Just like in the national semifinals and finals last year.

Raza closed out Oklahoma State’s Hayden Wood, 2 and 1, to move the Ducks onto the semis. He then had to take down Matthias Schwab, ranked 18th in the country, to get his team past the Commodores. He did.

Raza came to the par-5 18th 1 up, and faced a 193-yard second shot slightly downwind. He took out a 6-iron, a club he usually hits 181 yards, and nuked it.

“That was probably the best 6-iron of my life,” Raza said.

It sailed right over the flag, some 20 feet past the pin onto the back fringe. With the pressure on, Schwab flew the green with his second and struggled from there. When Raza lagged his eagle effort to a couple of feet, the hole and match were conceded and Oregon was moving on.

Raza is now 5-0 in match play at the NCAA Championship. He’s taken down Schwab, Wood, Funk, Charlie Danielson and Sam Burns.

And yet, you would have never guessed that … well, for most of the past 12 months.

This week marks Raza’s fifth time in the starting  lineup the entire 2016-17 season, and there’s no mystery why: His game, for a while, was in free fall.

It started a week after his national-title winning putt. Raza went to U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and shot 77-79. He beat just two players.

It only got worse. Raza’s wedge play and putting were fine, but everything else became putrid, particularly his driving.

At the Pacific Coast Amateur, it got so bad he had to withdraw after nearly shooting 90.

“I couldn’t even get off the tee box,” Raza said. “I was shanking it 30-40 yards off the tee into trees. With a hybrid or 2-iron, that’s pretty embarrassing.”

In a practice round at the Western Amateur, Raza came to Knollwood Club’s first hole. In front of friends, he took out a 3-wood and promptly hit a block-cut 40 yards right.

The fact that he was the guy who made the putt to win the national title only deepened the embarrassment.

“I was wondering if people were maybe thinking to themselves, ‘Really? This kid did this?’ ” said Raza, who shot 78-78 at that Western Amateur to easily miss the cut.

As the crush of attention eased up by the fall, Raza got over that part of the equation. But his long-game woes continued on.

Raza has two long-time coaches, Tim Zwettler and Jim Dodd, but as his struggles worsened in the summer and fall, Raza stubbornly believed he could fix them on his own.

There were dozens of tweaks – shorter back swing, slowing down rhythm, anything really – but nothing helped. Raza finally decided to go to swing coach Jeff Smith – who was working with Wyndham Clark (current teammate) and Aaron Wise (former teammate) – in January. A month-and-a-half there did no good: Raza is a feel player and Smith is a technical coach.

After that experiment failed, he went back to Zwettler and the pair returned to basics: Balance, tempo and rhythm. Raza was also able to figure out that he was standing too close to the ball. He narrowed his stance as well in order to open up lower body movement.

It all clicked. Playing as an individual, Raza closed in 2-under 70 in March at the Bandon Dunes Championship. Ellis could see afterward that Raza had a different swagger.

No more trepidation about swing. Now, it was, Watch this shot, watch me do this.

Raza then played the Duck Invitational as an individual and won.

“I remember telling John then, ‘He’s still got it,’ ” said Casey Martin, Oregon’s head coach.

Yet after the Pac-12 Championship, there was Raza with freshman Kevin Geniza in an 18-hole qualifier at Eugene Country Club for the final spot for regionals. Geniza captured the qualifier and spot by a few shots.

Raza didn’t despair, though, as coaches told him to stay ready in case. Geniza struggled with the pressure at regionals, and the coaches decided their senior would be better suited to deal with NCAA Championship nerves.

“I chose Sulman to play just by virtue of his experience,” Martin said. “As you saw today, he handled it incredibly well.”

Yeah, you could say that.

And he handled his struggles incredibly well, too. Ellis said Raza stayed positive throughout a difficult fall season.

To lighten the mood during a tough time, Ellis and teammates began calling Raza “Guidy.” The idea was to poke fun at bad shots: when you’re not fully committed to a shot, you try to guide it. And that leads to big misses.

Hence, when Raza would hit bad hooks or flares, teammates would sometimes joke around: Guidy, not good.

But as teammate Edwin Yi noted, the nickname probably no longer makes sense.

“(With the way he’s playing), can’t really call him Guidy anymore,” Yi said with a laugh.

It was certainly a long path traveled back for Raza. But with the way he’s back to playing, Oregon may be on its way to back-to-back national titles.

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