Ducks poised for another NCAA run
EUGENE — The roars that echoed throughout Eugene Country Club last May faded into an eerie silence over the summer for Casey Martin.
After Oregon won the NCAA men’s golf national title in dramatic fashion, the program’s competitive coach said goodbye to some of the key pieces to the championship puzzle.
Sophomore sensation Aaron Wise, the NCAA individual champion, turned professional. Zach Foushee and former U.S. Open qualifier Brandon McIver graduated.
Martin also lost his close friend and former caddie on the PGA and Nationwide tours, Van Williams, when the Oregon assistant joined Arizona State’s staff in August.
But Martin’s revamped roster — led by Ben Hogan Award finalist and Pac-12 player of the year Wyndham Clark — has already provided some more May Madness by delivering Oregon’s first outright conference championship since 1959.
The Ducks will be the No. 2 seed at the NCAA Regional May 15-17 in Baton Rouge, La.
“Shockingly, I think this team is every bit as good, if not better,” said Martin, who was named the Pac-12 coach of the year on Friday. “And so I’m thrilled with that. That means there’s expectations we’re going to have to go manage. If they continue to do what they’ve done all year ... they’ve handled it beautifully, so that’s exciting.”
Martin said Oregon’s wet spring turned out to be ideal preparation for the Pac-12 championships in Boulder, Colo., where the team endured rain, sleet and snow to win the abbreviated 54-hole event at plus-15, three shots clear of three-time defending champion Stanford.
The Ducks finished tied for sixth place in the 2016 Pac-12 Conference championships in Salt Lake City before regrouping at their regional and finishing the season with the storybook ending.
“It’s not much harder,” Martin said of the two titles. “A Pac-12 championship is very difficult. It’s been the dominant conference in golf for a long time, especially individually. It might be harder to win an individual championship.”
Clark, an Oklahoma State graduate transfer who grew up in Denver, shot a 206 (69-67-69) to outlast USC’s Rico Hoey (209) and Stanford’s Franklin Huang (209) for the Pac-12 medalist honors.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of the season going any better,” said Clark, the first Oregon player since Brent Murray in 1978 to win a conference championship. “I didn’t have that high of expectations coming in. I just wanted to get better and be part of the team and help out wherever I could. I’ve just been blessed that it’s gone this well and the team has done this well.”
When Wise left the program, Norman Xiong, the Pac-12 freshman of the year, decided to enroll early. Sophomore Ryan Gronlund, who sat out last season after transferring from SMU, also helped fill the void.
“A lot of people didn’t even know I was on the team because I transferred in the middle of the year,” said Gronlund, who finished tied for sixth at the Pac-12 championships. “When we won, obviously I was sitting on the sideline. So I went home that night and was like, ‘Hey, great the guys won, but I want to be a part of that next year.’
“I want to be one of those guys winning a match to win the national championship.”
Oregon has two players who know what that feels like.
During the dramatic 3-2 match play victory over Texas, Edwin Yi won 4-and-3 over Gavin Hall, and Sulman Raza made a birdie putt on the third playoff hole to beat Taylor Funk and clinch the title.
After struggling to recapture the magic touch during his senior season, Raza regained his form by winning the Duck Invitational at the Eugene Country Club in March.
“There’s been a lot of expectations on me and the team itself. Honestly, we’ve handled it great,” Raza said. “We’ve got Wyndham and Norman now. I feel like our season has been very good. For me particularly, I didn’t play so great the majority of the season, so it’s kind of nice to see my game turn around a little bit.
“We’re all excited going into the postseason, especially after winning the Pac-12s, we’ve got a lot of momentum and confidence going into it.”
Martin said his new assistant, former Oregon player John Ellis, has helped keep the team relaxed and focused during the season.
The Ducks have won five tournaments this spring. Clark leads the nation in scoring average (69.57), and Xiong is sixth (70.54).
“John has been a huge part of our success, there’s no doubt about it. I’m really proud of him to come back and work as hard as he has,” Martin said of Eliis.
“Everyone wants him to caddie for them because he gets them in the right mood and makes jokes to kind of get them to loosen up, but he can also tell them how to get better.”
Ellis, a first-time coach who was a two-time first-team all-Pac-10 selection during his playing days, said he is amazed with the program’s ascent.
The Ducks are ranked No. 7 in the coaches poll released Friday.
“Getting second was a nice finish for us. Now they win every week it seems like, so I’m pretty fortunate to be a part of that,” Ellis said. “These guys are creepy close. They really do enjoy each other. They compete and want to beat each other in practice, but they really root for each other and they are a team.
“Golf is an individual sport, but they’ve come together as a team to hopefully get to where we want to get to, and that’s to win a national championship.”
In order to get a chance to defend their title, the Ducks need a top-five finish in their 14-team regional field to advance to the national championships May 26-31 in Sugar Grove. Ill.
Martin’s confident team plans to stir the echoes and put the puzzle back together.
“When we get to nationals, we’re definitely going to feel nervous being defending champions and what we were able to accomplish last year,” Raza said. “I don’t think that’s going to change the way that we play. I think we’re going to just go out and attack the field the way we have been this year.
“If we keep playing the way we have, I think we’ll have a very good chance to repeat, honestly.”