Slow starts had plagued the Blue Devils to start their spring season, and they once again found themselves near the bottom of the standings after a rocky first round had them tied for 13th.
But this time around, Duke certainly didn’t let early nerves define its event, rising to the top as the only ranked team in the field.
On the back of a senior Alexander Matlari’s course-record 63 in the second round, the No. 21 Blue Devils exploded to come back for their first victory since Oct. 31. Duke posted a three-day total of 287, good for a 23-under-par finish, six strokes ahead of runner-up Grand Canyon in the GCU Desert Invitational in Phoenix.
After a long desert trip that featured disappointing showings at the Querencia Cabo Collegiate and Lamkin Grips Classic, Duke rebounded convincingly. The Blue Devils had four golfers finish in the top 20, and posted just one round over par in the final two rounds.
“It was a long week of travel, so to be able to bounce back and shoot [was big]. It was more about keeping your composure and staying upbeat, everybody, coaches and players alike, [was huge],” Duke head coach Jamie Green said. “The fact that they had the energy and composure to settle in and stay positive and aggressive encourage each other and keep themselves up beat, that was a big deal in that second [and third] rounds. It was a really good finish to a a long week of tournament golf.”
Matlari had posted the second-worst first round for the team, an up-and-down 3-over-par 74, but quickly rebounded Friday, riding eight birdies and no bogies to set the high water mark at GCU Championship Golf Course with an 8-under-par 63.
The veteran had only cracked the starting lineup once in the fall season, finishing tied for 39th at the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate, and spent most of his time on the B-Team. But after a break between the fall and spring seasons, the senior has surged, picking up a top-10 finish at the Querencia Cabo Collegiate and combining to shoot 10-under-par in three spring tournaments.
Matlari owned the long holes this weekend, tying for second overall in par-5 scoring at 7-under-par, and picked up three of his birdies on par-5s during his record-setting second round, including one in a string of five straight birdies on holes two through six.
“Alex has a lot of length,” Green said. “He’s one of the longer players and creates more club head speed than most other players that you see. But where he’s really improved is his pitching and chipping around the greens and his putting. That keeps building his confidence.”
The native of Leimen, Germany, finished fourth individually, and was only bested among Duke’s starters by Alex Smalley’s 9-under-par finish. A sophomore, Smalley tied for second.
He rebounded after finishing tied for 34th and tied for 56th in his last two outings, riding precise par-3 and par-4 play to finish tied for second in scoring on both shorter sets of holes.
Strong efforts from Matlari and Smalley let the Blue Devils prevail without major contributions from their scoring average leader—freshman Chandler Eaton. With two top-seven finishes, the Alpharetta, Ga. native was the only golfer outside of Matlari that had finished better than 21st in each tournament entering the weekend, but posted the worst three-round total for Duke, a 3-over-par 216.
Duke did it with a top-10 finish from senior Matt Oshrine and a solid recovery to finish tied for 18th from junior Jake Shuman, who opened with a 4-over-par 75 before combining to shoot 5-under-par in his final two rounds.
The Blue Devils will have nearly two weeks off before traveling to Franklin, Tenn., for the Mason Rudolph Championship March 31-April 2. The field in that event will certainly be tougher than the one Duke faced in Arizona, meaning Duke will have to get off to a better start to stay near the top of the leaderboard.
“To some degree, there’s getting used to the golf course,” Green said. “You can play practice rounds all you want, but when you turn on the lights and everything counts, you can be a little bit tighter and overanalyze the things you see. We need to do a better job of making sure our guys feel freed up and able to attack in the first round.”