The stat that stood out after Oregon sophomore Aaron Wise claimed the NCAA title at Eugene Country Club on Monday, closing with a one-over 71 to win by two strokes over USC’s Rico Hoey, was the fact that it has been 37 years since college golf’s individual champion had won the title in front of his school’s hometown crowd.
The last time it was done was by Wake Forest’s Gary Hallberg when he won the 1979 individual title at Bermuda Run Golf & Country Club in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The advantage of intimately knowing the nooks and crannies of your home course would seem to be an intangible that would have propelled more golfers to the title over the years. Not only does Wise practice at the course on a regular basis, he also won the Pacific Coast Amateur there in 2015.
Yet local knowledge can be offset by the pressure of playing at home. Both Arron Oberholser, a former All-American at San Jose State in the 1990s, and Buddy Alexander, a two-time NCAA championship winning coach at Florida, noted on Golf Channel Monday evening that the stress of playing in front of a crowd that has come almost solely to see you perform is bigger than you’d think.
Wise, a 19-year-old from Lake Elsinore, Calif., who posted a 69.8 stroke average this season, acknowledged the large galleries following him did have an impact as did the realization that this could have been his last round as a college golfer having announced previously that he would give up his last two years of eligibility to turn professional.
“Knowing this is my last event in front of my teammates, my family, my friends, it’s hard,” said Wise, who finished with a five-under 275 total to become Oregon’s first NCAA individual golf champion. “My family came up just because this was my last event, and all that brings pressure. … There was a ton of pressure on me today, and I was happy with the way I was able to calm down before the round and go out there and execute.”
Starting the round with a two-shot lead after posting a third-round 64, Wise at one point got to eight under par for the tournament and had a four-stroke edge on his nearest competitor. But he then made a double bogey on the 12th and 16th holes, bringing back into the mix the likes of All-Americans Hoey, Mattias Schwab of Vanderbilt, Beau Hossler of Texas, Lee McCoy of Georgia and Jon Rahm of Arizona State, who were all searching for ways to make up ground.
But Wise, the sixth ranked amateur in the world, regrouped. “He looked at me on 17 tee,” said Oregon assistant Van Williams, who walked the course with Wise, “and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ And you can’t teach that. But he’s got it.”
Indeed, Wise bounced back with a birdie on the 17th hole, rolling in a 12-foot putt and following it with an emphatic fist pump.
“I told Van, ‘When I make this thing, it’s going to be a roar,’ ” Wise said.
Besides being the first Oregon golfer to win an NCAA title, Wise claimed his fifth career victory with the Ducks, tying Daniel Miernicki for the the school’s all-time mark. He also isn’t quite finished with his college career yet. Oregon qualified for match play by finished sixth in the team stroke-play competition. Wise leads the Ducks against defending champion LSU in the quarterfinals on Tuesday as they hope to win the team title as the host school, a feat that hasn’t happened since Oklahoma did it 27 years ago at Oak Tree Country Club.