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.

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“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.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.