On the second-to-last hole of the U.S. Women’s Amateur final Aug. 7, Duke sophomore Virginia Elena Carta desperately needed a birdie.

The NCAA champion trailed South Korea’s Eun Jeong Seong by two when she found a greenside bunker with her second shot on the par-5 17th hole at Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, Pa. The only way the Italian could send the match to the final hole was by getting up and down for birdie with a timely bunker shot. 

“I thought it was a perfect bunker shot as soon as I hit it, so I was like, ‘Why is nobody clapping? Everybody is so mean,’” Carta said. “I thought it was perfect, then I walked up the bunker and saw this ball rolling down the green. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”

Carta’s ball came to rest past the back of the green, about 30 feet away from the hole. Although Carta’s caddy for the event, Italian national coach Roberto Zappa, encouraged her to aim for an effective lag putt with good speed, the player with the lowest NCAA championship score ever had a different mentality.

“I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand, this ball has to go in. I got it,’” Carta said. “I believed in it because it was the only thing I could do in that situation.”

As the ball dove to the right and nestled into the bottom of the cup—Carta compared the putt to the several long-range putts she made at the NCAA championship in May—she let out a fist pump that was “all the energy I had.”

Although Seong made an equally impressive putt on the next hole to seal the win, the event was one of several summer learning experiences for Carta coming off her record-setting NCAA championship win. The Udine, Italy, native also competed at the LPGA Tour’s Marathon Classic—finishing tied for 69th after struggling during the final two days—and withdrew from the European Ladies Amateur Championship because of flight delays.  

The months after Carta’s first collegiate win tested her under pressure, conditions she will experience again when she competes in the World Amateur Team Championships next week and begins her sophomore season at Duke at the end of September.

“With Virginia, she’s passionate and gets very excited. Her work always includes making sure she stays at an even keel and stays in process,” Blue Devil head coach Dan Brooks said. “As good of a player as she is, she’s going to need to keep working on that.”

Any improvements Carta makes entering the season could spell trouble for the rest of the country. 

After finishing 32nd following two rounds of stroke play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, she won five matches—including three straight against higher-seeded opponents—to advance to the final. 

And as dramatic as several of her back-nine comebacks were to reach the final, Carta saved the most exciting moments for the final 18 of the 162 holes she played in Pennsylvania that week.

Before her clutch putt on the 35th hole of the 36-hole final, the All-American battled heat exhaustion and dizziness. At one point, she sent an eagle putt off the back of the green. After continuing for several holes and drinking a soda to increase her energy level, Carta’s ailments worsened, forcing her to lie down after winning the 13th hole to receive medical attention. 

The 15-minute break gave Seong time to regroup after losing a hole, and the 16-year old took advantage to became the first player ever to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Girls’ Junior championship in the same year.

“The final was tough. The final was really tight. I made some mistakes that I still think about and am like, ‘Okay, you are so stupid,’” Carta said. “For sure, like drinking Coke and coffee was not the best idea ever.” 

Brooks was in Pennsylvania to recruit and support his most recent NCAA champion, though he had to leave before the semifinals to attend a former player’s wedding. 

Luckily, Carta gave Brooks a reason to come back to watch the final match.

“It was great. She was a lot of fun to watch. She was really playing great golf throughout the whole week,” Brooks said. “That was quite a deal to have to lay down on the 14th tee and recover—it was just unfortunate. She was playing great and really had some good potential to win the championship.”

As part of her busy summer, Carta connected with several former Blue Devils at the Marathon Classic, including U.S. Women’s Open champion Brittany Lang, Olympian Laetitia Beck and former U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Amanda Blumenherst. She also befriended the top player in the world—Lydia Ko.

Carta said the professional event had a big impact on her, adding that she and Blumenherst—a three-time National Player of the Year who finished second at the U.S. Women’s Amateur before winning it in 2008—texted throughout the summer about the parallels in their stories.

Now back in Durham, Carta is with the No. 5 Blue Devils eyeing a team national championship after Duke fell for the second straight year in the national semifinals. After she starts playing with her teammates again, there will be less pressure on her, but Carta said she wants to stay just as focused.

At the Marathon Classic, she said she found herself in the top 30 following the first two rounds because she wanted to make the cut. Once she met another goal, Carta struggled to keep her game at the same level.

But if her U.S. Women’s Amateur performance is any indication, Carta will likely be just as determined to get back on top at NCAAs next May. 

“I wasn’t able to score [at the Marathon Classic] because I didn’t have a goal in my mind,” she said. “This is something that I’m going to try to have going into this fall, trying to have as many goals as possible.”