Casey Martin: Tee time
NORTH PLAINS — When Oregon won the 2016 NCAA title, then finished as runner-up the following year, it changed the landscape for the Ducks' men's golf program.
Suddenly, the middle of the pack in the Pac-12, and not reaching the NCAA championships, was unacceptable.
That's why when Oregon finished in a tie for fifth place in the Pac-12 tournament this spring, then failed to make the NCAA's for only the fourth time in Casey Martin's 13 years as coach, there was disappointment in Duckville.
"With the success we've had the last few years, this year wasn't our best," Martin said at media day for the WinCo Foods Portland Open on the Korn Ferry Tour. "There are a lot of reasons for that."
One was the loss of Norman Xiong, who had won the Jack Nicklaus and Fred Haskins awards as the nation's top collegian as a sophomore in 2018.
"That was hard to replace," Martin said. "And there is a little more pressure now at Oregon than in years past. It's a different vibe.
"We're trying to learn and get through that. That's something we'll have to overcome the next few years. We're going to get back there in due time. We're working toward it."
The Ducks will lose their top two players from the 2019 squad — seniors Ryan Gronlund and Edwin Yi.
Gronlund earned the Tom Hansen Award in recognition of the school's outstanding senior male student-athlete for achievements on and off the course. He won the Duck Invitational in March and was Oregon's top placer at the Pac-12 championships, finishing in a tie for 10th.
"Ryan is a bulldog of a player," Martin said. "He's a kid who has a chance to play at the next level. He has the (swing) speed and mega determination. His best golf is still ahead of him. He will develop a little bit later than some."
Yi, a key member of the Ducks' 2016 and '17 clubs, placed second at the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, regional and was the team's only qualifier for the NCAA championships, where he finished in a tie for 102nd.
"Edwin had an amazing career," Martin said. "He has a national championship ring and a Pac-12 championship ring. He has enough talent to play on the next level."
Three golfers who were regulars for the Ducks as freshmen last season return — Craig Ronne of Klamath Falls, Yin Ho Yue of Hong Kong and Tom Gueant of Brie Et Angonnes, France. The 6-4, 170-pound Gueant was named to the all-Pac-12 freshman squad.
"Those guys will form the nucleus for us going forward," Martin said.
Martin also hopes to get some help from Oregon's three incoming freshmen, including a pair of in-state prizes — Lincoln High's Nate Stember and Jesuit's Austin Carnese — along with Edwin Kuang of Murrietta, California.
The glow of the 2016 national championship — achieved at the Eugene Country Club — hasn't yet dimmed. The thrill of watching South Eugene High grad Sulman Raza sink the winning birdie putt in a playoff to give the Ducks a 3-2 victory over Texas in the finals will forever remain with their coach.
"It was one of the greatest moments of my life," said Martin, like Raza a South Eugene alum. "From a golf perspective, it could have been the best moment, because of all that went into it. There is a lot of stress when you're hosting a championship. You're not in the field just because you're hosting it. There was a lot of pressure on the guys all year. To see them rise to the occasion and play so well — it was magical. Aaron (Wise) won the individual title, and we just kept winning in an amazing fashion.
"To have Sulman, who grew up a mile and a half from Eugene Country Club, make the winning putt on national TV in front of all of his family and friends, and for Oregon to win its first-ever national championship — to see how that culminated is special. The great thing about coaching is, I know the guys on the team have a cherished memory for life, and I got to play a role in that."
Martin is now enjoying watching three of his recent prodigies playing professional golf.
Wyndham Clark recently had his best finish on the PGA Tour, a tie for fifth in the 3M Open at Blaine, Minnesota. He had a third-round 64, won $243,000 and moved up to 86th on the money list with more than $1 million in earnings this year.
"That's real money," Martin said. "Wyndham is a phenomenal player. He is working his fanny off, especially the last few months with the pressure of trying to keep his (PGA Tour) card. He is really talented. He led the tour in driving distance during the week (of the 3M Open), and he can putt and chip like crazy. He's a beast in the gym. He's a grinder.
"He has been knocking on the door (at winning a tournament). It wouldn't shock me if he's able to get that done in the next couple of months."
Wise burst onto the PGA Tour scene with a flourish in 2018, gaining his first victory at the AT&T Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas in May. Wise finished 28th on the money list with $3.486 million in earnings and claimed the tour's Rookie of the Year Award. This season, Wise has three top-20 finishes, including 17th at the Masters. He ranks 94th on the money list with nearly $1 million.
"Not as good as (his rookie season), but don't count Aaron out," Martin said. "He tends to play his best golf later in the year. He's going to be out there for a long time. Aaron has an air of confidence that is unique. He has a lot of internal belief. That's a huge part of his success."
Xiong has struggled in his first year on the Korn Ferry (formerly Web.com) Tour, the subsidiary circuit to the PGA Tour. He ranks 163rd on the money list with about $75,000 in earnings.
"Norman is an elite talent, but the adjustment (to professional golf) is tough for some people — not only the golf and playing for money every week, but for the life adjustment," Martin said. "But (his struggles are) confounding to me, because he's so good."
Rookies Matt Wolff from Oklahoma State and Collin Morikawa from California went 1-2 at the 3M Open.
"Norman dominated those guys (in college), had a better year than those guys last year," Martin said. "He is every bit the player they are. To see those guys have that kind of success and Norman not is frustrating, but don't count him out.
"It seems like he's feeling the pressure a lot, but he can putt and he can pound it. It takes some time for some guys. He's going through some major adversity for the first time in his golf career, but he's going to figure it out. In due time, you'll see Norman do good things."
Martin played a year of golf at Stanford with Tiger Woods and has maintained a friendship with him through the years. Martin watched on television with their coach with the Cardinal, Conrad Ray, as Woods won the Masters in April at age 43.
"It's rare in sports and golf that something brings you to tears, but when Tiger won that, we were choked up watching it," Martin said. "Regardless of your take on Tiger ... to see him overcome (his personal problems) and see where he is now is an incredible human story of resilience and comeback. I love him and I'm cheering for him every week."
Martin played professionally on the PGA and Nike (now Korn Ferry) tours until the effects of a birth defect known as Klippel-Trenaunay Syndrome — which has caused instability to his right leg — curtailed his career. He has continued to play at a remarkably high level despite his ailment.
"I'm actually feeling OK," Martin said. "I don't play a ton of golf. I'm around the game. I hit balls, but I don't play that many rounds. I'm motivated, because I like trying to beat the guys on my team. I talk a lot of trash to them, and I have to play good to back it up. That's been part of our program. Both me and my assistant, Brad Lanning, can still play a little bit. We let our players know that, and we want to keep it that way."
In three years, the 47-year-old Martin will be eligible for the Champions Tour.
"I think about that, and I'll consider it," he said. "But I love what I'm doing (as Oregon's coach). I love being around the guys. If I were to play out there, I don't think I'd give up my day job, because I enjoy it so much.
"If there were an exemption or two and I could get out there and test the waters, I'd like to. I might need to get an exemption or go to Q school, but I'm going to keep my game in shape, just in case."
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