Duke men's golf enters NCAA regional looking to continue consistent spring
Fresh off their eighth ACC championship, the Blue Devils will be looking to pick up where they left off this week after almost a month away from the course.
Duke will travel to Baton Rouge, La., to compete in one of six NCAA regionals in a three-day, 54-hole competition Monday through Wednesday. By topping the ACC, Duke earned an automatic bid to regionals and will be a No. 4 seed in the 14-team event at The University Club hosted by LSU. The Blue Devils have not played competitively since the conference tournament April 21-22 and had practice time cut down by finals.
"We were gearing up and putting a lot of time in and all of a sudden we came to a screeching halt because obviously, finals take precedence," Duke head coach Jaime Green said. "When we did finally put the academics aside, prepping this week, we just tried to think a little about the golf course we were about to play and focused on certain kinds of shots in mind and worked on certain areas of the short game."
The Blue Devils need a top-five finish to advance to the NCAA championship, as the five lowest-scoring teams at the regional—and the top five individuals not on those teams—will advance to the biggest stage in college golf held May 26-31 at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill.
Throughout the year, Green's squad has fallen victim to inconsistent play, and it boasted only three top-five finishes heading into mid-March. However, as the spring season ramped up, Duke found its form and finished in the top-five in the last four tournaments it played—including a six-stroke win at the Desert Shootout/Grand Canyon University Invitational and the ACC championship.
The wire-to-wire conference title was an impressive performance, as the Blue Devils ran away with a 12-shot win against national heavyweights including then-No. 10 Wake Forest, No. 14 Clemson, No. 18 Virginia and No. 24 Florida State.
The Baton Rouge Regional also boasts an intimidating field of host and No. 3 LSU, No. 9 Oregon and No. 18 Virginia. Although Duke beat 279 of the 297 opponents it faced in tournaments, the Blue Devils were only able to outscore six of the 20 top-25 teams they competed against.
Duke also has to shake off painful memories from last year, when it entered the Stillwater Regional as a No. 4 seed. However, a 33-over-par opening round proved too tough for the Blue Devils to overcome as they finished tied for eighth, 14 strokes behind fifth-place Purdue. They will be looking to a stronger start this year to set the tone for the tournament.
"We prepared a little differently this year and we also have a different team and we are also playing a different golf course. I think in truth, nobody on this team looks to last year and says, 'Oh jeez, there is something to be worried about," Green said. "They know they can count on each other and they stand shoulder-to-shoulder. These guys are ready to take on anybody."
Senior Alexander Matlari leads Duke into the tournament with a –0.13 average against par. He has 11 rounds in the 60s this year—the most on the team—has the least bogeys per round with 2.5 and the highest greens in regulation percentage at 71.6. Along with two first-place finishes for the season, Matlari is coming off a top-10 individual result at the ACC Championship.
Alex Smalley enters as the hottest golfer on the team. Smalley has finished best among the Blue Devils in three of their last four tournaments and captured the lowest season scoring average at 71.3. The sophomore also led Duke at regionals last year with a top-25 finish at 11-over.
Freshman phenom Chandler Eaton boasts the second best scoring average at 71.4 and has been the team's most consistent golfer with only two rounds over 75. He has five top-10 finishes this year and the most under-par rounds on the team with 15.
Matt Oshrine and Jake Shuman close out the lineup for the Blue Devils. Shuman, who struggled mightily early in the season, is coming off of top-10 finishes at the Wolfpack Open and ACC championship. Oshrine is the best putter in the lineup with 30.3 putts per round and will hope to improve on a team-worst 20-over-par at regionals last year.
Duke will be competing on a long par-72 track, with the University Club playing more than 7,300 yards in all three rounds. The winding track cuts through the Louisiana wetlands and native grasses, making precision a key. Water hazards throughout the course will pose a daunting obstacle for the Blue Devil golfers.
"It is a great test of golf. They designed a really terrific track here in Baton Rouge, and it certainly was meant to play firm and fast," Green said. "When you are going downwind and got a front hole location, you just have to accept that it might be almost impossible to get it close to the hole. You just need to patient with what the golf course gives you and what the weather can give you."