From funk to finals, Raza leading way for Oregon

By Ryan LavnerMay 31, 2017, 2:51 am

SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – If you expected Sulman Raza’s title-clinching heroics at last year’s NCAA Championship to help launch his career, well, sorry to disappoint.

His game actually went in the tank. It took less than a week.

Raza is the local kid from Eugene, Ore., the one who sank the 8-foot putt that gave the Ducks their first national title on their home course. Caught up in the hysteria, he didn’t practice for his U.S. Open sectional in Vancouver, and during that five-day span he apparently lost his game. Over the summer he developed the driver yips, sending balls all over the map, even hitting trees that were just 30 yards off the tee box. The low point came at the Pacific Coast Amateur, where he withdrew because his score was approaching 90.

“It was embarrassing to watch some of the shots I was hitting,” he said.

His erratic play continued into his senior season, and he made only five starts, the fewest of his career.

“Golf is a hard game,” Oregon coach Casey Martin said. “Anyone who has played this game competitively will understand that. When it is hard, it is just the hardest thing ever, and Sulman experienced that. He was in a funk.”

Raza worked on his mechanics. He stood farther from the ball. He narrowed his stance. He slowed down his tempo and rhythm and transition. And he showed signs of improvement this spring, earning a victory at the Duck Invitational (where he played as an individual), a performance that was so encouraging that Martin told his assistant: “Hey, he’s still got it.”

But Raza was left home for NCAA regionals, after he lost an 18-hole qualifier. He spent that week fine-tuning his game, hoping for another shot, and Martin rewarded his persistence with a trip back to nationals, based on his match-play experience a year ago.


NCAA Division I National Championships: Articles and videos


“I just had no clue it was going to happen again like this,” Raza said.

First, he holed an 8-footer for birdie on his 17th hole Tuesday to close out the team match against Oklahoma State.

Then, in the afternoon, against top-seeded Vanderbilt, he faced off against Matthias Schwab, the fifth-ranked amateur in the world. All square with seven holes to play, and once again with his team’s title hopes riding on his match, Raza played flawlessly to the clubhouse, closing out Schwab, 2 up, with a two-putt birdie after his approach into the par 5 narrowly missed the flag.

With the victory, he improved to 5-0 in NCAA match play.

“It was incredible to see him when the lights came on down the stretch,” Martin said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him hit it better than those last seven holes I was with him. Every shot was just on it.

“I’ve been in that funk before, where things do not go well and golf is the hardest pit to crawl out of, and it’s no fun. And so it’s fun to see him crawl out of it, with a big smile, and hopefully tomorrow will culminate in a great championship.”

It’s remarkable that Oregon even has a chance to become the third school in the past eight years to win back-to-back national titles.

Entering the final round of stroke play, the Ducks were in 12th place, 10 shots off the top-8 cut line. In benign conditions, it would have been a monumental task, because every team was going low, but the wind gusted to 40 mph Monday and scores skyrocketed. Oregon not only cracked the top 8 with its 5-over final round, which tied the low round of the day, but the Ducks finished fifth.

“And now here we are with one round to go,” Martin said.

The path to the finals wasn’t much easier for Oklahoma, which finished second in stroke play but was trailing in all five matches on the back nine in its quarterfinal match against Baylor.

That’s when Grant Hirschman made eagle on the 18th hole to win his match. And Rylee Reinertson, who has been deaf in both ears since age 2, birdied the 17th to earn a point. And then Brad Dalke, the U.S. Amateur runner-up who committed to play for the Sooners when he was 12, won the 19th hole to advance.

Even against a team as savvy as Illinois, which was in match play for the fifth consecutive year, Oklahoma didn’t flinch. The Sooners won the first three matches to punch their ticket to the finals, where they will look to capture their first national title since 1989.

“Oregon is going to be tough, we know that,” Oklahoma coach Ryan Hybl said. “They’ve got great players. They’ve got a great coach, and they won it last year. But you know what, I believe in my guys, and they’re going to do something great tomorrow.”

Sounds like another challenge for Oregon’s most unlikely hero.

Thomas vs. Rose could be Ryder Cup highlight

By Rex HoggardNovember 19, 2017, 11:40 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – For those still digesting the end of 2017 – the European Tour did, after all, just wrap up its season in Dubai on Sunday – consider that the PGA Tour is already nearly one-fifth of the way into a new edition.

The Tour has already crowned eight champions as the game banks into the winter break, and there are some interesting trends that have emerged from the fall.

Dueling Justins: While Justin Thomas picked up where he left off last season, winning the inaugural CJ Cup in October just three weeks after claiming the FedExCup and wrapping up Player of the Year honors; Justin Rose seems poised to challenge for next year’s low Justin honors.

The Englishman hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since August and won back-to-back starts (WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open) before closing his year with a tie for fourth place in Dubai.

Note to U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk: Justin v. Justin next September in Paris could be fun.

Youth served. Just in case anyone was thinking the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of experience over youthful exuberance – 41-year-old Pat Perez did put the veterans on the board this season with his victory at the CIMB Classic – Patrick Cantlay solidified his spot as genuine phenom.

Following an injury-plagued start to his career, Cantlay got back on track this year, needing just a dozen starts to qualify for the Tour Championship. He went next level earlier this month with his playoff victory at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.


RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic


They say these trends come and go in professional golf, but as the average age of winners continues to trend lower and lower it’s safe to say 25 is the new 35 on Tour.

A feel for it. For all the science that has become such a big part of the game – from TrackMan analysis to ShotLink statistics – it was refreshing to hear that Patton Kizzire’s breakthrough victory at the OHL Classic came down to a hunch.

With the tournament on the line and Rickie Fowler poised just a stroke back, Kizzire’s tee shot at the 72nd hole came to rest in an awkward spot that forced him to stand close to his approach shot to keep his feet out of the sand. His 8-iron approach shot sailed to 25 feet and he two-putted for par.

And how far did he have for that pivotal approach?

“I have no idea,” he laughed.

Fall facelift. Although the moving parts of the 2018-19 schedule appear to be still in flux, how the changes will impact the fall schedule is coming into focus.

The Tour’s goal is to end the season on Labor Day, which means the fall portion of the schedule will begin a month earlier than it does now. While many see that as a chance for the circuit to embrace a true offseason, it’s becoming increasingly clear that won’t be the case.

The more likely scenario is an earlier finish followed by a possible team competition, either the Ryder or Presidents cup, before the Tour kicks off a new season in mid-September, which means events currently played before the Tour Championship will slide to the fall schedule.

“So if you slide it back, somebody has to jump ahead. The mechanics of it,” said Davis Love III, host of the RSM Classic and a member of the Tour’s policy board. “I’m still going to go complain and beg for my day, but I also understand when they say, this is your date, make it work, then we'll make it work.”

While 2019 promises to bring plenty of change to the Tour, know that the wraparound season and fall golf are here to stay.

Product protection. Speaking of the fall schedule and the likely plan to expand the post-Tour Championship landscape, officials should also use the platform to embrace some protections for these events.

Consider that the RSM Classic featured the third-strongest field last week according to the Official World Golf Ranking, behind the season-ending tournament in Dubai on the European Tour and the Dunlop Phoenix on the Japan Golf Tour.

The winner in Dubai received 50 World Ranking points, a marquee event that has historically been deeper than that week’s Tour stop, while the Dunlop Phoenix winner, Brooks Koepka, won 32 points. Austin Cook collected 30 points for his victory at Sea Island Resort.

All told, the Japan event had four players in the field from the top 50 in the world, including world No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama; while the highest-ranked player at the RSM Classic was Matt Kuchar at 15th and there were seven players from the top 50 at Sea Island Resort.

Under Tour rules, Koepka, as well as any other Tour members who competed either in Japan or Dubai, had to be granted conflicting-event releases by the circuit.

Although keeping players from participating in tournaments overseas is not an option, it may be time for the circuit to reconsider the conflicting-event policy if the result is a scenario like last week that relegates a Tour event to third on the international dance card.

After Further Review: Whan deserves major credit

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 19, 2017, 11:18 pm

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Mike Whan's really, really good idea ...

If LPGA commissioner Mike Whan hasn’t earned a gold star yet for creating the Race to the CME Globe four years ago, he deserves one now. The race’s finish at the CME Group Tour Championship has become a spectacular fireworks show. Stacy Lewis said it best on Saturday. She said the pressure the top players feel at CME is the “worst” those players feel all year, and by that she meant the “most intense,” the kind that makes for the best weeks.

You can argue there’s more pressure on the top women at the CME than there is in a major. The Rolex Player of the Year Award, the Vare Trophy for low scoring, the Rolex world No. 1 ranking and the money-winning title all seem to come down to this final week, when there’s also the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot up for grabs. You have to think the weight of all that might have had something to do with Lexi Thompson missing that 2-footer at Sunday’s end. She came away with the Vare Trophy and $1 million jackpot as nice consolation prizes. We all came away thrilled by Ariya Jutanugarn’s birdie-birdie finish amid the gut-wrenching drama. - Randall Mell


On Austin Cook's improbable winner's journey ...

Despite becoming a Monday qualifying sensation on the PGA Tour in 2015, Austin Cook still had to head to Web.com Tour Q-School that winter. There he collapsed over his final four holes to blow a chance at full status, and one year later the cancellation of the Web.com Tour Championship because of Hurricane Matthew left him $425 short of a PGA Tour card.

But Cook put to rest all of his recent near-misses with four days of nearly flawless golf at Sea Island. Now he’s headed to Augusta National in April and exempt through 2020, afforded ample time to look back at how tough breaks in the past helped to shape his unique journey to the winner’s circle. - Will Gray

On what Cook's win says about PGA Tour depth ...

Players talk regularly about the depth of talent on the PGA Tour, claiming that anyone in a particular field can come away with a trophy on any given week.

To prove the point, Austin Cook, No. 306 in the Official World Golf Ranking, rolled over the field at the RSM Classic with rounds of 66-62-66-67 for a four-stroke victory. Before Sunday at Sea Island Resort, Cook’s only triumph in a professional event was at a mini-tour winter series tournament. That payday was $5,000.

His victory at the RSM Classic was worth considerably more and proved, yet again, the depth of the modern game. - Rex Hoggard

Snedeker feels close to 100 percent after RSM week

By Rex HoggardNovember 19, 2017, 11:09 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Even if the result – a tie for 29th place – wasn't exactly what Brandt Snedeker is accustomed to, given his journey back from injury he’ll consider his final regular-season start of 2017 a success.

Snedeker had been sidelined with a sternum injury since June and overhauled his swing with the help of his coach John Tillery in an attempt to alleviate future injury. Needless to say, his expectations at the RSM Classic were low.

After starting the week with back-to-back rounds of 67 to move into contention, Snedeker wasn’t as sharp on the weekend, but he was still pleased with his week.


RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic


“It was great to see how my swing held up and the golf course toughen up today and the changes we made. Inevitably you kind of revert back to what’s comfortable and natural,” he said. “But now my body feels good. I was shocked. I thought I’d be close to 75 percent this week and felt closer to 100 [percent]. Hopefully it continues to stay that way.”

Snedeker said he has a busy schedule planned for early next season on the West Coast and also plans to play next month’s QBE Shootout.

“Every time I’ve come back from injury I’ve been kind of like, well I’m close but not quite there,” said Snedeker, who added that he was pain-free for the entire week. “This is the first time I’ve come back and been like it’s there.”

Cook hopes RSM win starts a ROY campaign

By Rex HoggardNovember 19, 2017, 10:43 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Austin Cook cruised to his first PGA Tour victory on Sunday at the RSM Classic, a nearly flawless performance that included just two bogeys for the week and a 21-under total.

Earlier in the week, Cook’s caddie Kip Henley said Cook was playing the most effortless golf he’d ever witnessed. But as is so often the case, it can be tough to tell what is really going on inside a player's mind.

“A lot of stuff going on, especially up here,” Cook laughed pointing at his head. “A little tenseness. This week my ball-striking was great, and for the most part my putting was great as well. All around my game was just incredible this week.”


RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic


Following a bogey at the second hole on Sunday that cut his lead to two shots, the rookie responded with a birdie at the seventh hole and added three more over his final four holes to beat J.J. Spaun by four strokes.

It was a timely victory for a player who has set rather lofty goals for himself.

“My goal coming into the year was to win Rookie of the Year and I’ve gotten off to a good start. Now my goal is to make a long deep run into the FedExCup playoffs,” he said.

Cook became the second consecutive rookie winner of the RSM Classic following Mac Hughes’ victory last year.