For the first time in its history, Oregon men’s golf has an individual national champion.
Oregon sophomore Aaron Wise won the stroke play portion of the 2016 NCAA Men’s Golf Championships at the Eugene Country Club Monday, May 30, finishing the four-round tournament five-under 275 — two strokes better than USC’s Rico Hoey (-3).
In his last collegiate tournament before turning professional, Wise was exceptional. His performance included a six-under third round on Sunday, May 29 that set him apart from the rest of the field. Wise also became the first player to win on his home course since Wake Forest’s Gary Hallberg did so in 1979.
Wise entered Monday four strokes ahead of second place, but, the back nine wasn’t as kind to Wise as it was Sunday when he birdied holes 13 through 16. Wise first double-bogeyed the par-four 12th hole, before bouncing back with three straight par holes.
Then, hitting into the wind on the 205-yard, par-three 16th — a hole he nearly made ace on Sunday — Wise shanked his tee shot into the large water hazard in front of the green. The shot cost him a penalty stroke, and he eventually two-putted another double bogey.
All of a sudden, Wise’s once-comfortable lead had evaporated into a tie with Vanderbilt’s Matthias Schwab at four-under.
“I knew I just let everybody back into it at that point,” Wise said. “I had to start playing some real golf. I kind of put it in neutral there, and you can’t do that at Eugene Country Club. It’s too hard.”
As he approached the 17th tee, Wise turned to Oregon assistant Van Williams, who walked every hole with Wise during match play.
“He looked me in the eye, put his fist up and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” Williams said.
Wise crushed his 17th tee shot, then easily cleared the bunker on his approach shot and landed on the back of the green. With the individual title on the line and Oregon’s overall team score on his shoulders, Wise confidently sized up the shot.
“Walking up the green, he looked at me and said, ‘I’m gonna make this,’ ” Williams said. “All I can do is encourage him and say, ‘Yup.’ ”
Wise sunk the 15-foot putt for birdie, pumping his fist and mouthing the words “let’s go,” before a crowd of a couple hundred people. His birdie coincided with Schwab dropping a stroke after bogeying the 12th hole. Wise reclaimed his two-stroke lead, and this time, he didn’t need a bounce back shot to keep it.
“Aaron’s put this team on his back all year and he solidified it today,” Oregon head coach Casey Martin said.
After Oregon finished, Hoey and Lee McCoy of Georgia still had a chance to jump Wise, but neither golfer was able to. Hoey birdied 15 before settling for par on holes 16 through 18.
Despite shooting seven-over as a team Monday, Oregon slipped only two spots, from fourth to sixth, which was good enough to qualify for the eight-team match play portion of NCAA Championships.
Sulman Raza provided the biggest turnaround for the Ducks, improving on a nine-over third round to shoot even par Monday. Raza could have shot even lower had it not been for three straight bogeys to end the round.
Zach Foushee (+2) maintained a steady string of performances following a five-over first round on Friday.
Edwin Yi (+4) recovered from a 10-over third round, recording another eagle on the front nine and sinking two birdies.
Thomas Lim (+5) shot par on eight of his first nine holes, but fell victim to a challenging back nine with two bogeys and one double bogey.
After all teams finished Friday, Oregon learned it will play defending national champion LSU in the match play quarterfinals. The Ducks have little familiarity with the SEC team due to the geographic distance between the two schools.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for them and their coach [Chuck Winstead],” Martin said. “We’re going to have to play incredibly well tomorrow.”
The format will pit each of LSU’s five golfers against Oregon’s five golfers in a one-on-one format. The team to win three or more of its match-ups will advance to semifinals.
Follow Will Denner on Twitter @Will_Denner