The Blue Devils’ fall season was one of the least consistent in recent memory, with the team finishing no higher than fifth in any stroke play tournament before earning an impressive victory at November’s high-profile East Lake Cup.
To open its spring slate, though, Duke displayed plenty of consistency—despite lacking continuity—en route to its best stroke-play finish of the season.
The No. 16 Blue Devils finished third in the Northrop Grumman Regional Challenge with a three-day score of 7-over-par at Palos Verdes Golf Club, where junior Leona Maguire led the team Sunday through Tuesday with a total of 4-under-par—good enough for a share of the individual title. The team held the lead with all players through 13 holes and at several other points late in the final day’s back nine, but bogies during the final two holes across the Blue Devil roster ultimately caused the team to finish three strokes behind champion and No. 4 Southern California.
Duke had a difficult task cut out for it as part of a field that included nine other ranked squads, and the team was devoid of a couple usual faces to make things even more challenging. Senior Sandy Choi missed the event due to pneumonia and head coach Dan Brooks skipped the trip to Palos Verdes, Calif., due to an ear-related health issue that prevented him from flying as a precaution.
“Our players did a great job of handling themselves, handling their mindset to just keep going about their business throughout a long weekend,” Blue Devil assistant coach Jon Whithaus said. “The course presents a lot of challenges with the layout, the undulations, and our players were very patient. They need to be disciplined and that was a real credit to their preparation over the last couple of weeks.”
Maguire was on the right track from the get-go, opening the event with a share of the lead after a 3-under-par round of 68 that included the Cavan, Ireland, native’s first collegiate hole-in-one, which she made on the par-3 15th hole. Two more solid rounds of 70 and 71 followed as the junior notched six birdies and five bogeys in the final 36 holes to put her at a four-under total and deliver her fifth career victory at Duke.
Before the tournament started, it was determined that a playoff would not be used to break any ties after 54 holes on the par-71 track.
Freshman Ana Belac delivered a breakout performance with three rounds of 71, during which she carded at least four birdies in each of her final two rounds. Belac had not finished higher than a tie for 47th in either of her two previous 54-hole stroke play events, but surpassed that mark in stellar fashion by placing in a tie for seventh out of 88 players thanks to a score of 213. Whithaus attributed Belac’s success not to alterations in her game, but to perseverance in her practice routine.
“She didn’t change anything,” Whithaus said. “She just has continued to work very diligently at specific areas that Coach Brooks has been helping her out with and the work is paying off.”
Another player who tied for seventh was sophomore Virginia Elena Carta, who was 4-over-par after 14 holes of competition but managed to shoot 4-under-par during the final 42 holes. Carta’s position on the leaderboard was her best during the 2016-17 campaign and marks her third top-15 finish of the season.
Junior Gurbani Singh tied her career-best in her most recent stroke play start in October and entered the event with a scoring average of 72.5, but could not keep that momentum going into the new year. Singh struggled during the opening two rounds with scores of 75 and 76, and although the New Delhi native did sharpen up in the final round—going 1-under-par through the first 16 holes and eventually carding a 73—Singh gave away crucial strokes for the Blue Devils in the final two holes with a double-bogey on 17 and a bogey on the par-4 18th.
Singh was not the only one with mishaps on the difficult final two holes, as Duke players with counting scores combined to shoot 6-over-par on 17 and 18 throughout the week.
Maguire's twin Lisa also competed for Duke, but posted the team’s lowest score each day and thus did not contribute to the team’s overall score. Maguire broke 80 just once—posting a 79 Tuesday—and notched scores of 82 and 80 Sunday and Monday, respectively.
“There’s no concerns,” Whithaus said. “We are very pleased with our team and the depth of our team and every player is very clear on the work that they need to do and golf is just a game where sometime there’s some ups and downs…. We have a lot of confidence to come out of this, yes. It’s a good first step but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
The Blue Devils will tee it up next at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate March 3-5 in Hilton Head, S.C.
Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.