Sulman Raza: More Than Meets the Eye July 17, 2011 | Bremerton, Wash. By David Shefter, USGA

Sulman Raza found a home in Oregon after being born in Lithuania and being adopted at a young age. (USGA/Steven Gibbons) 

He was born in Lithuania, but has never seen his biological parents or returned to the Baltic country that once belonged to the former Soviet Union.

His adopted mother is a professor of international studies (with an emphasis on Pakistan) at the University of Oregon, while his Pakistan-born adopted father is a former professional cricket player who now operates a local soccer store.

He’s visited more than a dozen foreign countries, including such exotic locales as Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Kenya and Cuba.

He’s been to the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal, and played golf on the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland.

He speaks fluent French and recently spent a week in Paris for a high school community-service project.

His high school senior paper involves re-designing a green at his home course, Emerald Valley, in Creswell, Ore.

Meet Sulman Raza, the U.S. Junior Amateur’s most interesting contestant.

"He’s a unique kid with a unique background," said Raza’s longtime swing instructor Jim Dodd.

Indeed, the Eugene, Ore., resident has already had enough experiences to last a lifetime. And he’s only a 17-year-old high school senior.

"He doesn’t see himself as being different," said Anita Weiss, Sulman’s adopted mother.

But Raza, who is competing in his first USGA championship (he opened with a 2-over 74 on Monday), is a little different than virtually every player assembled at Gold Mountain Golf Club for this week’s Junior Amateur.

Had circumstances been different, Raza likely would not even be in suburban Seattle for this national championship for players 17 and younger. He might not even be in this country.

To this day, Raza doesn’t know why his biological parents gave him up for adoption just a few months after his birth. Weiss only knows that his mother was of medium height and build. She has no knowledge of the whereabouts of his biological father.

Somewhere in Lithuania, birth records exist. Sulman is curious but not to the point where he’s ready to dig into his past. 

"Someday I might look," said Raza, showing some interest in his past. "I’d love to know [who my biological parents are]."

When Weiss and her husband decided to adopt a child, they went through an agency called PLAN (Plan Loving Adoptions Now). Weiss’ roots are in Eastern Europe, so they went that route and found Sulman in Lithuania. Weiss flew to Baltimore, Md., to make the necessary arrangements.

The process has worked swimmingly well for all parties.

Sulman couldn’t have asked for a better situation. Through his mother’s academic work, he’s been able to travel and see the world. When he was 8, his mother took a year-long sabbatical aboard a ship – the program is called A Semester at Sea – that departed Vancouver, British Columbia and ended in Florida.

Along the way, Sulman visited Japan, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and Cuba. He played golf at Fancourt in South Africa, site of the 2003 Presidents Cup. He visited the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City in China and saw the Taj Mahal.

Raza bonded with other kids on the ship as well as the students. More importantly, he saw countries that most people just read about in books or see on television.

"That was a lot of fun," said Sulman of the experience. "You get to see the values of other countries."

It was about that time that Raza began to take golf seriously. His father, Farrukh, had first put a club in his hands when he was 3. He began formal lessons locally in Eugene with Dodd and another pro, Al Mundle, three years later. Raza fell in love with the game. When he turned 8, Raza started competing in Oregon Golf Association competitions. He is the only player to win the OGA’s Tournament of Championship five consecutive years.

"He’s a unique blend of talent, tenacity and character," said Dodd, who has been teaching the game for 30-plus years between Oregon and Indio, Calif. "He’s very honest and authentic. He’s very comfortable with himself. He’s comfortable with who he is."

But as Dodd has discovered, there’s much more to Raza than a fundamentally sound golf swing. By the time he was putting complete sentences together his parents had enrolled him in French classes. He continued learning the language through elementary school and junior high. By the time Raza attended South Eugene High, he was in the International High School French Immersion program.

Part of the requirements for graduation include 100 hours of community service, 50 of which must be done in French. So this past spring break, Raza boarded a plane by himself to Paris, where he stayed with friends of his tutor. It was the first time he had been overseas without one of his parents.

He spent a week working with students in a suburban Paris school called Monte-Lambert. He toured the city, seeing all the key sights.

"The best part of the trip was the third night we just all hung out and watched movies," said Raza. "It was a lot of fun."

While Raza doesn’t know where his French-speaking skills will take him, he does have aspirations of being a golf course architect if professional golf doesn’t work out.

Which is why he approached Scott Larsen, the superintendent at Emerald Valley, about drawing up plans to rebuild the fourth green at the Creswell course. Built in 1964, the severely sloped green complex is now outdated for today’s modern green speeds. To take advantage of more hole locations, the green will eventually have to be re-shaped.

Larsen, who was involved in the golf construction business for 12 years, was a bit surprised when a high school student asked about re-shaping a green. But when he saw Raza’s passion for this side of the game, he eagerly took his young protégé under his wing. He showed Raza how to properly grade the green and helped him draw up a blueprint for a new complex.

"Basically, he had the drive and that’s what I liked," said Larsen, whose past projects included Tehama Golf Club, a Jay Morrish design in Northern California and Stone Creek Golf Club in Oregon, a Peter Jacobsen project. "Kids that age, they don’t usually do the extra little projects. He had the drive to come up and talk to me about it, and I was excited for him. So we just went out and did it."

It took 1½ months but Raza created a blueprint that he hopes club owner Jim Pliska will eventually consider. Even if Raza’s plan isn’t utilized, he learned that wants to eventually design his own golf courses.

"He had something on paper that you could actually build," said Larsen, who has been a superintendent for more than 15 years. "He’s the first [junior that’s ever approached me]. I would say it’s pretty unusual."

But before Raza becomes the next Robert Trent Jones or Tom Fazio, he would love to be the next Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer.

Raza definitely is driven to succeed. That comes with the territory. His adopted father is a former professional cricketeer. His mom is a university professor.

"Education has been stuffed up his nostrils," said Dodd. "The two of them are hard on him."

Added Raza, who helped South Eugene to the Class 6A team title three years ago: "[My parents] are very driven to succeed.  They don’t believe in taking short cuts. They always want me to give 110 percent when I’m out there. They believe in setting goals and fulfilling your dreams."

Raza’s talent caught the eye of University of Oregon men’s golf coach Casey Martin enough to offer him a chance to play for the Ducks starting in the fall of 2012. Raza said friends questioned him why he would stay so close to home to attend college.

For him, he loved what Oregon had to offer, both athletically through its facilities and academically with a landscape architecture major.

"I’ve always loved Oregon," said Raza of the school where his adopted mom is employed. "The facilities are amazing."

Dodd said once Raza fully develops, he has tremendous potential. While not terribly powerful at the moment, he said Raza’s long-iron game is impressive and will carry him well in the future. Raza has also been working hard this summer with his high school coach, Tim Zwettler, on improving his putting. At the Junior Amateur sectional qualifier held at Emerald Valley, Raza carded rounds of 72-74 to earn the third and final spot.

"He’s grown about 6 inches in the last year," said Dodd. "I used to get a lot of phone calls from people that said you’ve got to get some length. He hits it dead straight. That’s all I care about because by the time he is 19, he will hit it 300 yards. I don’t care how far he hits it when he is 12 or 13.

"I’ve seen dozens of kids go to school and try to get longer and within two months, they couldn’t break 80. I care what number you shoot. I don’t care about club you hit from 150 yards."

Qualifying for the U.S. Junior Amateur certainly was another major step in his development as a player. Raza has competed in a couple of big American Junior Golf Association events with minimal success. But this week affords him the opportunity to measure his game against the country’s best.

"This is by far the biggest event I’ve ever played in," said Raza. "It’s amazing being here."

But not quite as amazing as his story.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. E-mail him at dshefter@usga.org.