FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – On the first hole of his NCAA semifinal match Tuesday at Blessings Golf Club, Stanford freshman Daulet Tuleubayev cracked his driver. On his final hole, he drained a clutch birdie putt to send the Cardinal to Wednesday’s final.
“It was just an absolute roller coaster,” Stanford head coach Conrad Ray said.
That may be an understatement.
As soon as Tuleubayev hit his opening tee shot in his match opposite Vanderbilt’s Harrison Ott, something didn’t sound right. He looked down at the clubhead and saw a thin crack along the top.
Ray called over a rules official and asked about replacing the club. The official referred to Local Rule G-9, which modifies Rule 4.1b(3): “If a player’s club is broken or significantly damaged during the round by the player or caddie, except in cases of abuse, the player may replace the club with any club under Rule 4.1b(4).”
However, a club is not considered broken simply because it is cracked. So Tuleubayev kept it in play, hitting it again on Nos. 2 and 5.
By the third strike, the top of the driver had caved in. Ray immediately called the official back over and Tuleubayev was cleared to replace the club. After the pro shop didn’t have an exact replacement head, Ray’s friend, who is an equipment rep, got in touch with a local rep, who delivered a similar head to the course.
The new head arrived to Tuleubayev on the 13th hole. Ray screwed it on and Tuleubayev was able to hit driver on the par-4 14th hole.
Right before that, Tuleubayev had walked off the 13th green after a winning par to go 4 up. As he did so, he put his hand to his ear, gesturing similarly to what Rory McIlroy did at the 2016 Ryder Cup.
“I believe if you hit a good shot, you should celebrate,” Tuleubayev said. “I’d do it again.”
He then lost three of his next four holes, fanning his second shot at the par-5 15th deep into the right woods and following Ott into the left hazard off the tee at the par-3 17th hole. On the penultimate hole, both players actually hit incredible recovery shots out of the rocks, but Ott won the hole after Tuleubayev incurred a penalty while accidentally hitting his ball on a practice stroke from the fringe.
But the freshman from Kazakhstan, now leading just 1 up, didn’t give up. After all, he navigated an improbable path to Stanford.
He grew up in a country with just two proper golf courses before moving to the U.S. permanently at age 15 to attend Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
With a childhood dream to play at Stanford, just like Tiger Woods, Tuleubayev traveled to the campus as a high school freshman and walked right into Ray’s office to ask, in broken English, how he could accomplish that dream.
Shortly after, Tuleubayev moved to San Jose, Calif., to attend the Harker School – the same school that Stanford great Maverick McNealy went to – and started working with Butch Harmon.
Less than four years later, he found himself standing in the middle of Blessings’ 18th fairway with a chance to punch Stanford’s ticket to the NCAA final. He stepped on a 5-iron, hitting it to 24 feet, before draining the clinching putt.
“When that putt went in, it was nice to release that burst of emotion,” Tuleubayev said.
Added Ray: “It was just one of those wild matches. It was all over the place, but it’s in the books.”