College / Men

Hometown boy Sulman Raza puts Oregon into NCAA final

Oregon’s Casey Martin celebrates with Sulman Raza after he wins his match, advancing Oregon to the finals of the 2016 NCAA Championship.
Oregon’s Casey Martin celebrates with Sulman Raza after he wins his match, advancing Oregon to the finals of the 2016 NCAA Championship. (Tracy Wilcox)

EUGENE, Ore. – Bobby Monaco, Mikella Berryman and Sam Wuest sat on a bench near the 13th tee at Eugene Country Club. The three friends attended Fox Hollow Elementary with Oregon redshirt junior Sulman Raza and graduated from South Eugene High School. Familiar faces surrounded Raza everywhere he turned in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship. The group’s standard-bearer, Paul Swenson, played high school golf with Raza and pulled strings to work his group during the past five rounds.

Raza, known by most as “Sully,” took on Illinois stalwart Charlie Danielson in the penultimate match on a course that Raza has played hundreds of times. He came to the 18th hole with a 1-up lead over Danielson in a contest that never produced more than a one-hole advantage.

Raza’s high school coach, Tim Zwettler, said it felt like watching Francis Ouimet in “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Raza won a team championship at South High under Zwettler as a freshman and the state individual title as a senior. He carried Ducks head covers on his metal woods long before signing with Oregon.

“The dream doesn’t get any better than this,” Zwettler said while walking up the 17th.

Raza hit 3-wood off the 18th tee down the left side, where his ball settled on pine straw under a tree near some TV cables. Danielson, playing from the right rough, hit a beauty onto the green while Raza’s punched approach settled in a greenside bunker.

With the hole location in a bowl, Raza blasted his third shot long and watched it climb up, only to fall back some 3 1/2 feet from the hole.

Danielson’s jaw-dropping lip-out for birdie left the home crowd stunned.

Raza, a player who has struggled with short putts over the years and spotty confidence, addressed the biggest putt of his life as Ducks supporters held their collective breath.

A make would send the Ducks into the finals of the NCAA Championship for the first time in school history, a mere five minutes from campus. After Martin stepped in to confirm the line, Raza stepped into his destiny.

The putt dropped, the crowd erupted and player and coach embraced so tightly that it looked as if both might topple over.

“Ever since we found out nationals was going to be here, I’ve been thinking about it nonstop,” Raza said. “Just having that moment right there where you’ve got a putt to put your team into the finals of the national championship. To conquer that feeling is incredible.”

Martin, a South Eugene High graduate himself, walked off the 18th green and pumped both fists three times in succession. He has known Raza since “he was a little tyke.”

“For him to make a 3 1/2-footer to send us into the national championship is so special,” Martin said. “I just can’t tell you what it means for his confidence and to feel like all that work paid off.”

Monaco, a high school teammate, had Raza over for dinner before the final round of stroke play for a pep talk after a third-round 79.

“When he’s playing confidently,” Monaco said, “he’s as good as anyone.”

The hard-working Raza said he’d be nervous on the first tee.

“You’re playing in the national championship in your hometown,” Monaco told him. “If you’re not nervous, you don’t have a pulse.”

In Wednesday’s championship match against top-seeded Texas, Raza will take on Taylor Funk, son of eight-time PGA Tour winner Fred Funk. Here in Eugene, though, Raza is the name that will be whispered in the trees and shouted from the sidelines.

The hometown hero who doesn’t want to wake up.

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