by Rob Moseley
The tougher the setup at Eugene Country Club over three days of NCAA Regional play this week, the more comfortable host Oregon felt.
On a defining day for a team and a young freshman, Thomas Lim carded the best round in the field and the Ducks were seven strokes better than their closest competitors in Saturday's final round of regionals. Though the rough was longer than ever, and the greens even slicker, the UO men put last year's final-round disappointment — and a season's worth of inconsistencies — behind them, challenging Stanford for the regional title before settling for second place, a stroke behind the Cardinal.
By finishing in the top five of the regional, Oregon advanced to the NCAA Championship, which begins Friday in Hutchinson, Kansas.
"Obviously we won't be the favorite, but stranger things have happened," said UO coach Casey Martin, who is taking his team to nationals for the fifth time in eight years with the Ducks. "We're going to battle and see what happens."
That was Oregon's mindset entering regionals as well, as the seventh seed. Deep down, though, the Ducks felt their home-course advantage will prove decisive.
When Thursday's opening round saw the Ducks make the turn at 9 over, that didn't seem so. But Oregon played the next 27 holes at even par, then shot a collective 5-over 285 on Saturday, seven strokes better than any other team. Oregon shot the low round among all 13 participating teams both Friday and Saturday.
Lim set the pace, fighting through a diagnosis of strep throat for the third straight day by shooting 4-under 66 to finish second individually, at even par for the regional. Stanford's Patrick Rodgers, thought by some to be the Cardinal's best player since Tiger Woods, matched Lim for the best round of the tournament with his 66 on Thursday, and finished at 6-under 204 to win the regional individually.
Oregon's Zach Foushee, who entered the day in second before fading with a round of 76, finished in a group tied for eighth at 15-over 215 with teammate Brandon McIver. Both players were on the Oregon team that collapsed over the final few holes of regionals last spring and failed to advance to the NCAA Championship.
"It's night and day," McIver said. "Last year was complete disappointment. This year we're obviously very happy and enthused to be able to move on.
"We had the mentality of, let's go out and take care of business. I think we put (last year's experience) behind us. We knew if we played well out here today, we'd have an edge."
That owed to the familiarity of having regionals at Eugene Country Club, where the Ducks practice regularly. They took a relatively conservative game plan into Saturday's final round — given their 14-stroke cushion for a top-five finish, entering the day — and they executed it nearly to perfection.
"The home-course advantage was huge," said Lim, one of just three players to come in under par Saturday. "The set-up played into our hands, because we knew where to play it on every hole. The rough was long, but that didn't really matter to us; we'd just bomb it down there, because we knew the places to miss."
Lim began his day with a birdie at No. 1, one of six he'd hit on the day. He finished 4 under for the round despite finding the water and taking a double bogey at No. 7. Lim posted back-to-back birdies at Nos. 13 and 14 and then — after banging in a 40-foot par save on No. 16 — tallied yet another birdie on No. 17.
On Thursday, the Ducks didn't count Lim's 4-over 74, as all four teammates finished under that number. Due to his illness, Lim thought he'd need his teammates to pick him up again Saturday. That mentality change with so many putts falling.
"Every time I looked up at a putt, it was on my line — every single time," Lim said. "… It was pretty crazy. I honestly don't know. I haven't felt this way in a while."
Lim's freshman year began with a first-place finish in his first ever college tournament, playing in a field of individuals separate from the team competitors at the Husky Invitational in the fall. He's battled consistency the last few weeks, but it all came together with an even-par 70 on Friday and then Saturday's 66.
"This definitely changes a lot of things," Lim said. "It gives me a lot of confidence going to NCAAs. I had lost a lot of hope for my game. This is huge for me."
Saturday saw a bounce-back round for Oregon's only upperclassman, junior Jonathan Woo, who struggled to a 78 on Friday. Woo was 2 over at the turn Saturday but finished with three birdies on the back nine; his birdie on No. 10 was Woo's first since the 11th hole Thursday.
"I went through all of (Friday) just trying to get one," Woo said. "It was just one of those days. So I was really happy."
Playing three groups behind Woo, McIver holed a sand wedge from about 70 yards out for eagle on No. 10. He spun another sand wedge to within about seven feet on No. 14 before sinking a birdie putt on the way to a final-round 73.
Foushee, playing in a group with Stanford's Rodgers that attracted a gallery of about 75 fans, struggled through his final round, as did Sulman Raza, who finished with a 78. Both players contributed critical scores Thursday and Friday to Oregon's team total, as the Ducks surprised the field — but not themselves — with their second-place team finish in the NCAA Regional round this weekend.