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ASU Golf: Season comes to end in fourth round of NCAA Championship

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The sun shined, the hometown kid won, and the world's top amateur golfer concluded his Sun Devil career with a tough defeat on Monday.

Arizona State's Jon Rahm putting out on his final hole Monday.
Arizona State's Jon Rahm putting out on his final hole Monday.
Sun Devil Athletics

EUGENE, Ore. — As far as endings go, this one was fitting.

There was the world's top amateur golfer — Arizona State senior Jon Rahm — standing on the ninth and final green Monday as darkness began to fall at Eugene Country Club. With the Sun Devils already mathematically out of contention to advance to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championship, Rahm's prolific collegiate career was about to come to a close.

All that was left was an eight-foot birdie putt.

A consummate competitor, Rahm took his time studying the innocuous left-to-right curler. He called over head coach Tim Mickelson for a second opinion on the read, took one last look at the cup, and then made his final putting stroke while wearing the maroon and gold.

The putt was true all the way, eventually falling into the hole to cap a one-over round of 71. It wasn't a happy ending for Rahm and Arizona State, but it certainly made sense.

The most decorated Sun Devil golfer since Phil Mickelson had finished his career with a birdie.

***

Six hours prior, the five ASU golfers who made the trip to Eugene were getting ready to start the pivotal final round of stroke play at the NCAA Championship. The top eight teams at the end of the day would advance to the match play portion of the tournament (to be held Tuesday and Wednesday), and Arizona State was currently right above the cut line in seventh place.

The team would flirt with that cut line all day long, eventually making the turn in a tie for eighth. But as the course toughened and the wind picked up, the Sun Devils started to make bogies and doubles when they needed pars and birdies. Max Rotluff and Nicolo Galletti finished their final five holes at a combined +7, putting some pressure on Rahm and junior Jared du Toit behind them.

But as du Toit bogied three consecutive holes and Rahm had a couple of key birdie putts just miss, it became clear that Mickelson's team would fall just short of advancing.

"We certainly thought we could make match play and that was always the goal," said Mickelson after Monday's round. "Because once you get there it's a completely different format — you start all over. We obviously fell one spot short of that, and we can go back and look at any one day and find four shots (the amount needed to catch eighth-place Oklahoma), but it is what it is."

The Sooners, whose fourth round tee times started under calmer conditions in the morning, finished the stroke-play portion of the event with a total of 1144. Arizona State finished ninth, one spot behind Oklahoma with a total of 1148.

"I didn't want it to be over," Rahm said, "To be the first ones out of match play, it's kind of sad."

The ninth-place finish was a marked improvement over the team's finish at last year's championship. The 2015 team did not even qualify for the final day of stroke play in that tournament, finishing tied for 24th at The Concession Golf Club in Florida.

***

With the stroke play event ending on Monday, also coming to a conclusion was the individual championship. Rahm entered the day just four shots back of the leader — Oregon sophomore Aaron Wise — and was hoping to climb his way up the leaderboard to join the likes of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Luke Donald, and many other greats as individual champion.

His quest for a title got started off on the right foot. Rahm opened the day playing the back nine first, posting pars on No. 10 and 11 before making a birdie on the 425 yard 12th hole.

"I hit this bomb (off the tee) to like 110 yards," said Rahm as he recounted his thought process after the round. "That was the perfect distance for me with the wind and pin placement. So I was like, 'Okay, just hit a punch pitching wedge.' It pretty much did exactly what I was thinking."

That pitching wedge stopped just short of the cup, and the two-time Ben Hogan Award winner made the short birdie putt to get to -3 for the championship. That, however, would be his final highlight for a while. Rahm made pedestrian pars on the next three holes, then doubled the par 3 at No. 16 after finding the water off the tee.

Even with the setback, Rahm was still in contention. But he needed to start making birdies, and fast, in order to catch Wise at the top. Those birdies just didn't come, as the senior hit a lot good putts that refused to fall as the day continued.

"That's just golf," Rahm said. "That happened all day and all week long. That's the difference between winning and not winning."

Wise, meanwhile, was not slowing down. He responded to his own double on the 16th with a birdie on the next hole (his second-to-last of the day), unleashing a Tiger Woods-like fist pump after pouring the ball into the cup. An easy par on the 18th capped his total score at five-under for the championship, making him the leader in the clubhouse.

And as it turned out, that -5 would be more than enough. USC's Rico Hoey finished two shots back of Wise at -3, while Rahm and Vanderbilt's Matthias Schwab tied for third at -1.

While one might think playing at home was a big advantage for Wise, history would say otherwise. He was the first individual champion to win on his home course since 1979, when Wake Forest's Gary Hallberg took home the title in Winston-Salem.

The whole "individual championship within a team championship" format created some unusual situations for the players near the top of the leaderboard, as they struggled with shot-planning and course management in the closing holes.

"It is a pretty interesting combination to have, being a team competition and an individual competition at the same time," said Wise in his post-round press conference. "Your team is fighting to stay in the top and you're like, 'Do I push? Do I want to make a par for my team? Do I try to make a birdie for me?' It's interesting."

At the end of the day, Wise was able to find just the right balance, giving himself the individual trophy while keeping the Ducks safely inside the top eight as a team.

***

While Monday ultimately ended in disappointment for the Sun Devils, the elimination shouldn't overshadow the tremendous work done by Mickelson, Rahm, and the rest of the team throughout the season. The team finished in the top four in 12 of its 13 events leading up to the championship, which is an impressive stat even for elite programs.

"We had a chance to win every single tournament we played in," says Mickelson. "We never went to a tournament and played crappy. I think that says a lot about our guys and their competitiveness."

Rahm, meanwhile, finishes his career in Tempe with 11 victories. That is second only to Phil Mickelson, who left the Maroon and Gold with 16 wins. His amateur career will come to a close following next month's U.S. Open, and then the world's No. 1 amateur will vacate that list and start playing in events as a professional.

"This tournament was great practice for that," Rahm said when asked about the U.S. Open. "This course actually had tighter fairways at times than I'll see there. But I know it's a hard course and that it is going to be a constant mental challenge all week long."

There is no question that plenty of more challenges lie in front of Rahm, who will soon be competing along the likes of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and many others on Thursday mornings and Sunday afternoons.

But if his career at Arizona State is any indication, he is more than ready to embrace it.