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From funk to finals, Raza leading way for Oregon

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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.